How to Help a Teen Struggling with Gender Identity

Gender identity struggles are not something that you can pretend don’t exist: In recent years, this topic has been covered extensively in the media. Whether it’s lawmakers banning people from using certain bathrooms or reality television stars going through sex reassignment procedures, gender identity is a well-known subject by most teens and young adults. It’s possible that your teen goes to school with someone who is outwardly changing his or her gender identity. It’s even possible that your own teen is dealing with these struggles. As a loving parent, you want to do everything you can to support and understand your child, but this might be a subject you haven’t even considered having to encounter in your own family. Here are some ways that you can help your teenager who is dealing with gender identity issues.

Create a Supportive Family Environment

Teens struggling with gender identity desperately need the love and support of their families. This is partially because most teenagers do want their parents’ approval. Also, those who identify as part of the LGBTQ community have a higher incidence of suicide, mainly because they tend not to feel accepted and may deal with bullying and being ostracized and misunderstood. Even if you, as their parent, do not understand what your teenager is experiencing or feeling, it’s vital that you make it clear that you are supportive of whatever happens.

You can do this in a wide variety of ways. Here are a few ways that you can be supportive to your teen struggling with gender identity issues.

  1. Create a safe place – Make your home a place where no slurs or belittling words are used. Do not accept that type of behavior from your teen’s siblings, your extended family, or anyone else who enters your home. Your teen should see his or her house as a safe place.
  2. Stay calm – Don’t react right away, particularly if you have negative feelings about this new revelation.
  3. Educate yourself – Learn about what being gay or transgender means to your teen and about some of the issues that he or she might face.

Explore the Options Available

For a teen who is identifying as transgender or is not sure that they are cisgendered, there are quite a few ways that they might choose to handle it. Even if their ultimate goal is to transition fully to the other gender, this might not be something that will happen during the teenage years. So while your child might feel eager to take hormones or undergo surgery, now is a good time to explore the options related to going ahead and waiting. Schedule an appointment with a doctor specializing in gender reassignment.

Many teens who are questioning their gender identity will want to experiment first with dressing and acting as though they were born the opposite gender. Let your teen know that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. They might decide to just take small steps, such as letting body hair grow or wearing a bra. It’s also possible that they will not identify strongly with either gender. Gender fluidity is when someone’s gender expression shifts from time to time. Let your teenager know that you will be there while they experiment with different types of gender expression if that’s what they feel they need to do in order to figure out who they really are.

Seek Professional Counseling If Needed

If you or your teenager are struggling, it’s a good idea to seek professional care. There are counselors who specialize in helping gay or transgender teens through the process of identifying who they are and what gender they more strongly identify with. They can also help parents and other family members deal with their own emotions as they go through the process of supporting their loved one.

If you are having trouble accepting your teenager’s gender identity, a therapist can help you walk through these emotions without you having to burden your teen with them. Keep in mind that while your feelings are perfectly valid, it’s extremely important that you support your teen through this difficult time.

Watch for Symptoms of Depression or Suicidal Thoughts

Teens who are gay, transgender, or questioning of their gender identity have a four times greater chance of attempting suicide than their cisgendered peers. Even if you are highly supportive and your teen has supportive friends, it’s essential that you watch for signs of depression or suicidal ideation or thoughts. It’s worth noting that teens who are in families who are not supportive have an eight times greater chance of becoming suicidal.

Some signs of being suicidal include:

  • depression
  • hopelessness
  • giving away possessions
  • withdrawing from activities and people that were once enjoyed
  • self-harmful behaviors

If you are worried that your teen is at risk of suicide, seek help immediately. You could go to his or her physician or, if the situation is an emergency, to the emergency room. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Accept Your Own Feelings

It’s normal for parents to feel a wide range of feelings when their teens let them know that they are questioning their sexual identity. You might feel relieved, particularly if you suspected that your teen was struggling but weren’t sure why or to what extent. You might also feel thankful that your teen chose to confide in you. You might also have some negative feelings, such as sadness, a sense of loss, or even anger. These feelings might make you feel guilty on top of everything else. All of this is normal and not uncommon. Letting some time pass, talking to friends or other parents who have been through this, and seeking professional counseling can all help you. You can also join a support group such as PFLAG, which helps families cope when they are having trouble accepting an LGBTQ family member.

As a parent, it can be difficult to know what to say or do when your teen is struggling with his or her gender identity. Keeping the lines of communication open and getting support not only for your teen but also for yourself can help all of you cope with and eventually thrive with this new normal.