Whether it’s RuPaul’s Drag Race or playground chatter that sparks debate, young people today are discussing gender more than ever. Verity Gough explores how to talk to your child about gender identity…
My 11-year-old daughter and I have a daily debrief at bedtime, where I hear all about her day. She tells me the banal stuff: which teacher she likes best, what she’s making in DT, who fancies who. But, most notably, since starting secondary school in September, she talks about gender.
She confidently uses terminology that is still a little unfamiliar to me; non-binary, genderqueer. A straw poll of my friends with children of the same age confirms that it’s not just my daughter and her school. It seems that it’s every child in every school, everywhere.
A quick search on TikTok and Instagram brings up a plethora of gender-diverse tweens using new pronouns. These certainly challenged my rather pre-fixed notions of identity.
And in the past month alone there have been repeated headlines in which our political leaders are being asked challenging questions around gender identity issues. These are causing quite the furore.
If you want to want to learn how to talk to your child about gender identity in a more calm and collected way at home, then read on. After all, it’s obvious that this is a subject that we need to broach.
How to talk to your child about gender identity
Gender identity has entered into the realm of topics that are broadly discussed in our society today. You might be perfectly happy to chat about the latest gender fluid popstars or which actor is now non-binary over a glass of wine with your friends.
However, suddenly being dropped into an in depth discussion of the differences between gender fluid and non-binary or cis and trans with your own youngster can provoke feelings of fear and confusion.
For one thing, when you’re used to being the authority on most subjects, it can be disorientating to find your little love is more clued up than you are.
But it’s important to remember that learning how to talk to your child about gender identity in an open and loving way shows them that you are there for them, whatever is going on in their lives. Expressing your unconditional love for them like this is a great way to strengthen your bond at an important time.
Examine your own perceptions of gender
Even before you begin learning how to talk to your child about this topic, you are likely to be examining your own thoughts about gender identity. One of the most powerful things that you come to realise as you go on this journey of education with your child is that gender is a social construct, and has changed much over the years.
‘Often, parents will say: “This was how I was raised, and this is how I will raise my own children”. But, these social constructs are handed down. Acknowledging this is important, but we have to see beyond the binary,’ says Rebecca Minor, a gender specialist who works with trans and gender non-conforming young people and their families.
‘Parents think they’re supposed to have all the answers, and if they don’t, it means they’re doing something wrong. It’s important to remind yourself that you can grow and learn with your child,’ she adds.
Consider how you communicate as a family
How these conversations go will largely depend on how you already communicate within your family. If you’ve already discussed sensitive issues – such as sex, drugs and online safety, for example – why should this talk be any different?
Choosing your moment is paramount, advises psychotherapist Siobhan Triggs, who runs specialist courses on child and teen mental health for parents, schools and community groups She also offers counselling services for young people.
Be gentle and honest when talking to your child about gender
She advises that taking a gentle and honest approach is the best tack to help keep emotions in check.
‘Remember, this is an invitation to talk and it’s important to go at your child’s pace. If they don’t want a discussion right now, just let them know you’re there if ever they want to chat. You may feel it has fallen on deaf ears. However, rest assured they have received the most important message – that you care, and you’re there for them when they are ready.’
She recommends putting yourself in their shoes, and thinking back to times that you’ve discussed a tricky issue with someone and how you wanted to be treated. Try to do the same for your child, bearing in mind that communicating thoughts and feelings at this age isn’t always easy.
Keep tempers under control
If you disagree with them, take a breath and a step back. It’s your role to keep any tempers under control right now. If you’re starting to feel angry or frustrated, maybe you can ask yourself why. Perhaps it’s because your child is growing up and starting to make their own choices.
Try to allow your child the space and time they need to work through how they feel without imposing your own views. ‘The worst thing you can do is be dismissive of feelings or respond in unhelpful ways, such as with anger or not taking them seriously.
‘This can give the message to your child that their feelings aren’t important, that it’s wrong to feel a certain way, that it’s not safe to open up and, if they do, they are shamed, punished or rejected. As a result, they’re much less likely to come to you for help and support with other issues, too. This will leave them feeling isolated and unsupported,’ adds Triggs.
Give your child space to explore their gender identity
When you have the discussion, if you discover that it is an important issue to them, remember that young people have always talked about sex and relationships to figure out who they are.
Technology has enabled them to connect with others who are also exploring their identities and who, a generation earlier, might have never found the right words to talk about how they’re feeling. This can leave us, like our parents before us, feeling completely out of the loop.
‘The notion of your child “questioning” themselves, or challenging the ideals you have, can be crushing,’ says Minor.
‘Fear and shame disconnect us. Even the most loving parents can be afraid and not able to show up in the way that they want to for their child. These feelings can be overwhelming for parents who might blame themselves. Or, they might think that they did something wrong, that their child is confused, or that it’s just a phase.’
Navigate information about gender identity together
Of course, gender-curious tweens and teens might just be flexing their identity muscles, pushing the boundaries of what is and is not appealing to them. They could simply be exploring different ways of expressing themselves.
However, much of the official material on this area can be rather bewildering. It often focuses more on adults who have already done their exploration than younger people who are just looking to find out more about who they might really be inside.
Sifting through the sea of information on the subject can be bewildering – for you and them. Often, resources tend to focus on the medical pathways available to adults wanting to transition, rather than approaching it more from an informational point of view.
I feel fortunate that my daughter is happy to discuss what is going on in her world with me. I hope we can keep lines of communication open so that she’s never left to deal with such atopic on her own.
Supporting your child if they are struggling with gender identity
One difficult issue, says Minor, is that often when serious questions about gender identity come up, they are usually surrounded by negativity. Or, they are broached in a reactive way at a time of crisis.
‘Perhaps you’ve had a call from the school over concerns about your child’s mental health. Or, maybe you’ve noticed that they are not themselves,’ she says. ‘The gender diversity piece gets linked with bad things happening.
‘Instead, you need to see it as a possibility for a more expansive understanding of gender. It’s also a possibility for your child to feel more freedom and be more like themselves,’ she says.
Read up on gender identity
To help break down the discussion, Minor has curated a raft of resources and insightful blog posts on her website. These offer helpful advice as well as a list of terminology.
‘Reading up on gender diversity will give you a broader understanding of what your child may be experiencing. In turn, this helps forge a deeper empathy. It can provide a new perspective that separates your own feelings from theirs,’ says Triggs.
‘It’s guaranteed that there are other parents out there who are going through the same issues as you. Look for some support groups on Facebook or locally – peer support can be invaluable.’
Focus on making them feel supported
It is natural to want to remove your child’s worries, but instead focus on providing love, support and understanding. I have a friend with a refreshing point of view: rather than fear of the unknown, she is excited for this next generation.
They can play around with their identity and push the boundaries, which she perceives as positive. And simply opening the lines of communication with your youngster is the first step to supporting them.
‘This is a parenting challenge – but not one that you can’t overcome,’ says Minor. ‘Keep coming back to the fact that you love your child. Reassure them what a gift it is when they trust you with letting you truly know them.’
Different types of gender explained
We know you probably know this, but just a quick refresher so you’re on top of the key ideas when learning how to talk to your child about gender identity…
- Cisgender or Cis: Someone whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth.
- Gender dysphoria: The term used to describe when a person experiences discomfort or distress because they feel a mismatch between their sex assigned at birth and their gender identity. This is also the clinical diagnosis for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable with the sex they were assigned.
- Gender expression: This is how a person chooses to outwardly express their gender, within the context of societal expectations of gender.
- Gender identity: A person’s innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else (see non-binary, below), which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.
- LGBTQ+: The acronym for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, and questioning.
- Non-binary: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity doesn’t sit comfortably with ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Non-binary identities are varied and can include people who identify with some aspects of binary identities, while others reject them entirely.
- Queer: A term used by those wanting to reject specific labels of romantic orientation, sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
- Source: stonewall.org.uk/help-advice/faqs-and-glossary/list-lgbtq-terms
Further resources for parents on gender identity:
- Read: Beyond The Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon (Penguin Putnam, £6.99)
- Listen: TILT Parenting Podcast: Dr Laura Anderson on Gender Nonconformity and Differently Wired Kids
- Visit: genderspecialist.com. Check out the helpful ‘Ever Evolving Glossary of Gender and Sexuality Terms’ for even more in depth information.
Words: Verity Gough | Images: Shutterstock