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Sharp Health News

Talking with teens about gender and identity

July 13, 2018

Talking with teens about gender and identity

Roughly 8 percent of American teens identify as LGBT+, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although other research points to a significantly higher percentage. Within those numbers are a wide array of gender identities and expressions, from bi to pan to genderqueer.

For the 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" because of increased visibility of the LGBT+ 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
"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?'" she says. "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, "our role as parents is not necessarily to agree with our kids but to provide them with love," says Dr. Hartsfield. "Our role as parents is to provide love and acceptance as they work to understand their identity. 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 terminology, 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.

"And 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.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Jershonda Hartsfield about how parents can talk with their teens about gender and identity for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com.

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