Understanding Your Teen’s Gender Identity

What is Gender Identity?

Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or somewhere in-between. Gender identity differs from biological sex, which refers to the objectively measurable biological features a person possesses. These features include biological organs, hormones, and chromosomes. 

For many people, gender identity matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth, meaning they identify as cisgender. For other people, their gender identity does not match their biological sex assigned at birth. These individuals often refer to themselves as transgender

For people who identify as transgender, there is a disconnect between how others perceive them based on their biological characteristics and outward appearance and their internal view of themselves. This disconnect can cause distress for the individual and lead to gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is defined by a strong desire to be of the other gender or an alternative gender and to be treated as the other gender or alternative gender. Gender dysphoria can affect many aspects of life, including daily activities, school performance, and participation in extracurricular activities. People experiencing gender dysphoria might experience increased stress due to pressure to dress or act in a way that's associated with their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender, or out of fear of being harassed or teased by others.

However, not all gender-diverse kids and adolescents experience gender dysphoria. Some kids and teens are comfortable identifying as a gender that’s different from their biological sex or assumed gender, and experimenting with gender expression is a normal part of development.  

There are also people who don't identify specifically as female or male. These individuals may identify themselves as both genders or neither gender (non-binary) or somewhere in-between (gender fluid), but don't necessarily feel like their gender identity is at odds with their biological sex. There are also individuals who don’t identify with a gender (agender). 

When Does Gender Identity Develop?

Research shows the development of an internal sense of identity happens very early in childhood, with some research indicating gender identity is formed as early as 3 years old. While gender development typically occurs at a young age, adolescence can be a period of experimentation with gender norms, trying on gender roles, questioning gender stereotypes, and playing with gender expression.

It’s common for both kids and young people to experiment with their gender identity. This is called gender expression. Kids and adolescents communicate their gender identity in ways that are comfortable to them. They may communicate their identity through their clothing, hairstyle, and mannerisms. Gender expression is often interpreted by others perceiving an individual’s gender based on traditional societal gender norms (e.g., men wear pants and women wear dresses), which can be hard to navigate if an individual feels they don't align with "traditional societal norms." Gender expression is fluid; it can change from day to day, outfit to outfit, event to event, or setting to setting.

Gender identity and expression are affected by many factors including biological sex, the influence of hormones and puberty, and the environment individuals grow up in. Gender norms, or gender roles, are societal expectations for how individuals are expected to behave, dress, speak, and conduct themselves. Gender norms and roles vary by society, racial and ethnic group, and cultural group. They are not static and can change in the same group over time. These norms and roles can lead to gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes are widely accepted biases or judgments about individuals based on their gender. These stereotypes can be about an individual’s expected personality traits, outward appearance, career, or expectations around raising a family. Gender stereotypes can lead to inequalities and limit an individual’s ability to act or dress outside “accepted” societal standards.

What is Sexual Orientation?

Sexual orientation refers to an individual’s physical and emotional attraction towards others. Research indicates kids know they are attracted to other kids of the same gender as early as 10 years old and identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual as early as 13 years old. Sexual orientation is separate and distinct from both gender identity and gender expression. Additionally, sexual behavior is also separate and distinct from sexual orientation. Your teen may identify their sexual orientation/who they are attractive to one way, but their behavior may not always be in line with that orientation.

Why is My Teen Saying They Identify as LGBTQ+?

Why...When something unexpected happens, our first question is often "why?". This is a pretty common question. The answer is nothing you as parents did or anyone else did that made your child LGBTQ+. 

LGBTQ+ individuals come from all types of backgrounds regardless of faith, political views, economic background, ethnicity, etc. There is no valid scientifically sound research that shows there are any factors related to parenting and your teen's gender identity or sexual orientation. Additionally, there is no research that points specifically to one genetic or biological cause.

What's important to remember is that your teen is the same person they were before they came out to you. What has potentially changed is how you view your adolescent - the image you had of them or the dream you had for them. This can be a tough transition and it's ok to feel confused. A newer and more clear understanding of your teen can develop with time!

How Should I Respond When My Teen Brings Up Gender Identity?

The number one way you can respond to your teen is with love. For some families, this will be a natural response. For other families, long-held beliefs and expectations of how things “should” go may get in the way. If you're finding this to be difficult, keep in mind how difficult it likely was for your teen to come out to you, based on their understanding of your beliefs and fears. This can be especially challenging if your adolescent was "outed" by someone else.

It is very likely your teen is going to be very worried about losing your love. They might also be worried about your reaction, your response, and losing their family. While there is no perfect way to react, your response will impact both your teen's wellbeing and your relationship with them going forward.

If you found it difficult to control any initial feelings or responses you had towards your teen when they came out to you, don't let that initial response stop you from trying again. It's possible to change your response and repair your relationship with your adolescent going forward.

If you're not in a place where you can immediately support and understand, as you work towards getting there, remind yourself that positive and supportive responses lead to better outcomes for your teen's wellbeing.

Steps You Can Take to Support Your Teen

Listen to your teen discussing their identity

  • Ask open-ended questions, don't push them to talk if they don't want to, and apologize if you make a misstep in your response. Show your adolescent that you want to learn about this aspect of their identity and gain a deeper understanding about them.

Support your adolescent’s identity, including their gender expression, even if it makes you uncomfortable

  • Welcome their friends into your home, take them shopping for clothing they feel comfortable in, and provide access to age appropriate resources.

Connect your adolescent with an LGBTQ+ role model

  • Show your teen the possibilities and hope they have for their future.

Express your unconditional love for your teen

  • Saying "I love you", reminding yourself that actions speak louder than words and making sure your actions back up what you're telling your teen.

Do My Responses as a Parent Matter?

Research indicates some shocking statistics about LGBTQ+ adolescents. These teens are:

  • 6x more likely to experience high levels of depression.
  • 2x more likely to experience high levels of anxiety.
  • 8x more likely to attempt suicide.
  • 3x more likely to use illicit substances.
  • 3x more likely to be at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Your love and support as a parent can go a long way in helping your teen’s mental health and overall well-being! Here are some additional resources if you need some extra help and support.

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June 7, 2023
Lauren Hammond, PhD | Clinical Psychologist and Senior Clinical Care Manager

Lauren Hammond, PhD | Clinical Psychologist and Senior Clinical Care Manager

Lauren Hammond, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Hammond provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatments from a cognitive-behavioral framework, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Prolonged Exposure. Dr. Hammond has specialized training in treating mood and anxiety disorder, trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, and self-harm and suicidality.

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