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Sharp Health News

Talking with teens about gender and identity

June 15, 2021

Talking with teens about gender and identity

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 12% of teens in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ+ — representing a wide array of sexual orientation and gender identities and expressions, from bi to pan to genderqueer.

This means for parents of today's adolescents, "the talk" is a lot more complicated than it used to be. With a rapidly evolving landscape of identities and ways to describe them, and a generation that views terms such as "gay" and "straight" as old-fashioned, are today's parents ready?

"The evolving nature of this topic leaves a lot of us feeling a bit inadequate," says Dr. Jershonda Hartsfield, a board-certified pediatrician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.

"Parents who have experience with friends or family members may feel a bit more comfortable having this conversation than those who don't have personal experience, but a large set of us parents may feel naive and unsure about how to talk to our children about these topics," she says.

Teens today may feel empowered to "come out" — the process of self-identifying and, self-acceptance and sharing their identity with others — because of increased visibility of the LGBTQ+ community and greater acceptance from family and friends than in the past. This broader acceptance may also provide teens a safe space to experiment with their identity before they discover their true selves.

Either way, it's important for parents to ask open-ended questions, admit when they don't understand and ask how they can demonstrate love and support for their child.

Dr. Hartsfield offers a few tips for parents:

Ask, and be ready for any answer
"Be willing to listen," says Dr. Hartsfield. "Oftentimes, we try to give solutions when what we really need to do is hear how they are feeling."

Admit when you don't understand
According to Dr. Hartsfield, "We should be honest about our feelings of inadequacy or discomfort with the discussion by saying things such as 'I really don't know what that means, can you help explain that to me?' or 'How can I support you?' Sometimes kids just need to know that there is a safe place to discuss this."

Lead with love
Parents may hold religious, cultural or moral beliefs that make conversations around identity challenging. However, Dr. Hartsfield says that our role as parents is not necessarily to agree with our kids but to provide them with love.

"Our role as parents is to provide love and acceptance as they work to understand their identity," she says. "We must focus on providing support whether we agree with our children's choices or not."

Be ready to learn, and to get it wrong
The way teens today describe gender identity and sexuality is very different than for previous generations. Parents need to do their research.

With so much new information coming out, parents need to stay informed to better understand new and evolving language, says Dr. Hartsfield. She recommends that parents with questions use online resources such as HealthyChildren.org, a website published by the American Association of Pediatrics.

PFLAG, the largest organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) people, and their parents, families and allies, offers a glossary of terms some LGBTQ+ people use to describe their gender or sexuality. However, they advise that the best practice is to ask individuals what words they use to describe themselves and how they would like you to use language when talking with or about them.

Some commonly used terms parents might not yet know or understand include:

Aromantic: Sometimes abbreviated as aro, the term refers to someone who does not experience romantic attraction.

Asexual: Sometimes shortened to ace, the term refers to a person who does not experience sexual attraction.

Bisexual: Commonly referred to as bi or bi+, this term refers to a person who acknowledges in themselves the potential to be attracted — romantically, emotionally or sexually — to people of more than one gender.

Cisgender: Often shortened to cis, this term refers to an individual whose gender identity aligns with the one associated with the sex assigned to them at birth.

Demisexual: Used to describe an individual who experiences sexual attraction only after forming an emotional connection.

Genderfluid: Used to describe a person who does not consistently adhere to one fixed gender and who may move among genders, identifying as male, female or nonbinary (see below) at different times or in different circumstances.

Genderqueer (GQ): This term refers to individuals who blur preconceived boundaries of gender in relation to the gender binary, which is the disproven concept that there are only two genders (male and female), and that everyone must be one or the other. GQ is often used as an umbrella term for those whose gender doesn’t fit with socially constructed norms for their sex assigned to them at birth.

Nonbinary: The term refers to people who do not subscribe to the gender binary. They might exist between or beyond the man-woman binary, feeling that they are a bit of both genders or not identifying with either gender.

Pansexual: Often shortened to pan, the term refers to a person whose emotional, romantic or physical attraction is to people inclusive of all genders.

Pronouns: The words used to refer to a person other than their name include common pronouns, such as they/them, he/him and she/her.

Queer: A term used by some LGBTQ+ people to describe themselves and their community.

Questioning: Used to describe those who are in a process of discovery about their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or a combination of the three.

Transgender: Often shortened to trans, the term describes a person’s gender identity that does not necessarily match their assigned sex at birth. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally or surgically to match their gender identity.

"Don't be afraid to get it wrong sometimes," she says. "Sometimes we avoid a subject because we aren't quite sure what to say about it. Some of my best teaching moments with my own children have been when I said to them, 'That didn't come out quite correctly. Will you forgive me and help me understand?'"

Trust your child's doctor
Your child's doctor is a resource for questions they are too embarrassed to ask you - but the doctor is also a resource for you. "If a parent feels uncomfortable about the topic, a pediatrician can support the parent and help them broach the topic," says Dr. Hartsfield.

For parents who are struggling with acceptance of their child's identity or if a patient is struggling, Dr. Hartsfield recommends seeing an experienced counselor. "It's helpful to have an ongoing discussion about identity, what this means, how this affects their day-to-day life and what this looks like for their future," she says.

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