By Guest Writer Dawn Friedman
The pre-teen and teen years are all about identity formation. Our children spend these years exploring who they are, experimenting with who they might become, and trying on different ways of being in the world. Nowadays our children are adding gender identity into their investigations in ways that may confuse or concern parents.
Understanding and Supporting Gender Exploration in Your Pre-Teen or Teen Child
In this article, we will briefly go over the ways that your child may present and talk about gender identity; how we can support them; and when to seek additional help. I will also share resources for further learning on this complex and important topic.
Before we dive in, let’s take a quick overview of some of the terms that are relevant to the discussion.
Sex: Biological attributes usually categorized as male or female
Gender: Socially constructed ideas about what it means to be male or female
Cisgender: People who identify with the gender they were initially identified as at birth (Example: a baby that people call a girl continues to identify as female)
Transgender: People who identify with a gender different than the one with which they were initially identified at birth (Example: a baby that people call a girl grows up to identify as male)
This generation of children understands in a fundamental way that gender is a social construct. What does this mean? It means that our ideas about what is male and what is female depend on where, when, and how we grow up.
In some cultures men wear pink and hold hands; in others, this is considered feminine. Some cultures encourage women to work to support the household financially. In others, this is considered a masculine role.
Challenging Our Ideas About Gender
Despite our excitement about gender reveals, gender is not a one-and-done performance. Gender is continuously created by us as individuals and as a society. Even if you identify as cisgender, you likely have your own experience of being bullied, laughed at, or reprimanded for doing something unexpected — for wearing clothes assigned to the opposite gender or for having an interest or hobby that people consider inappropriate for your gender.
This generation of kids is challenging these ideas about gender. As a cohort, they are thinking critically about the social construct of gender both socially and in their personal lives.
Gender is a Spectrum
We tend to think of gender as an either/or binary; someone is either male or female. But gender is actually a spectrum. Some people may identify further on the feminine continuum but not identify as fully female. Some people may move across the spectrum throughout their lives or even through the day, waking up to feel more masculine but ending the day feeling more feminine. This does not necessarily mean those people identify as transgender; it is a typical experience for those who understand gender as a social construct to identify as cisgender but still recognize some fluidity in their experience. The concept of gender fluidity is a hot topic.
Think about celebrities like David Bowie, Annie Lennox, or Noel Fielding. They play with gender presentation without (at least publicly) changing their gender identity.
Now consider Eddie Izzard, Elliot Page, and Janelle Monae, who identify as transgender and/or gender fluid (meaning that their trans identity shifts across the spectrum). We may make assumptions based on their presentation but those assumptions do not necessarily speak to their personal experience and identity.
Then there are celebrities like Caitlin Jenner, Chaz Bono, and Laverne Cox, who identify as transexual, meaning that they sought medical intervention to confirm their gender experience and whose identity is more clearly binary.
Note: Not all transgender people want gender confirmation interventions like surgery or hormones. Ultimately the choice to take hormones or seek surgery is an intensely personal and individual decision that should be made with appropriately trained and supportive medical and mental health personnel.
Follow Their Lead
The words we use to talk about the experience of being transgender — such as genderqueer, gender fluid, gender non-conforming — are changing quickly but ultimately belong to those who use them to describe themselves. We should follow the lead of the person who is sharing their information with us. In other words, if your child describes themselves as gender-fluid then that is a term you can also use to describe them. It’s appropriate to ask what this means to them to be sure that you are understanding what they are telling you about themselves.
Is it a phase?
For most young people gender identity exploration may be part of their experience growing up but they will ultimately identify as cisgender. It’s important to understand that this does not mark it as a phase to be dismissed or merely tolerated. Exploring gender is deep, meaningful work. When our children stretch across the binary and think critically about the gender constructs and how they do and do not suit them, they are giving themselves the freedom to truly claim who they are. Giving space to that is one way that we can let our children know that we trust them and their ability to make sense of themselves.
This does not necessarily mean setting up a legal name change or taking our child to the doctor to get gender-confirmation medical treatment. As parents, we need to work with our child to protect their right to change their minds without diminishing how they identify right this minute. We can do this in part by working to challenge our own ideas about the gender binary.
How Can Parents and Teachers Support Children to Explore Gender Identity?
We should also continue to invite our children to share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns about their gender exploration. At the end of this article, we will also share resources to help you as you figure out what it is that your child ultimately needs as they process their identity formation.
Gender Identity and Pronoun Use
You may have seen people adding “she/her” or “they/them” to their social media bios and wondered about this. Adding a pronoun explainer does two things: it alleviates confusion and it also indicates that the person sharing their pronouns is welcoming to trans people.
Your acceptance of your child’s pronouns or the pronouns of their friends is a simple way to show your respect. If you use the wrong pronouns, correct yourself, apologize and move on. If you’re unsure of pronouns, ask. And by the way? The singular “they” is now considered grammatically correct.
Does My Child Need Counseling if They’re Exploring Gender?
Maybe and maybe not. It is healthy and developmentally appropriate for our children to investigate their identities — including gender identity — throughout their lives. Use the pronouns and names they ask you to use (insisting on using birth names is known as “deadnaming”); give them safe space to express their gender identification; do not belittle or dismiss their exploration.
While it’s true that trans-identifying people have higher rates of depression and self-harm, this has to do with the lack of social acceptance and outright hostility. The best thing you can do for your gender-exploring child is to trust and accept them.
Seek mental health support if your child is depressed, frustrated, or anxiety about their gender or if they are interested in seeking out medical confirmation (hormones or surgery). Look for a provider who understands gender issues as well as what is typical teen development. Stay in touch with that provider to learn best how to continue to be there for your child. There is a national service based in London and Leeds called the Gender identity Development Service (GIDS). It’s for children and teens (and their families) who experience difficulties in the development of their gender identity. More information about how to get a referral can be found on the website.
This is Hard For Me As a Parent. Where Can I Get Help?
Supporting a child who is exploring gender can be difficult for us for a lot of reasons. Our ideas about gender may be less flexible. We may be personally challenged by having a child who challenges gender norms. Or we may find ourselves realizing that we need or want to explore our own feelings and experience about gender. (It is not uncommon for a child’s gender exploration to trigger a parent to realize that their own gender identity is more fluid.) Or we may be concerned about protecting them from prejudice within or without the family.
Fortunately, there is space and resources for us to learn more and become better supports, such as these organisations:
Dawn Friedman MSEd is the owner of YouAreNotYourMother.com, a membership site for parents who are working to stop family dysfunction in its tracks through their own parenting.
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