Navigating Gender & Identity with your Kids

by Allison Dickens, LPC

Happy Pride Month!  I hope all reading this have a joyful month full of celebration and self-exploration.

As we come to the close of this important month, it’s important to remember that the conversation about gender and identity continues throughout the year.  As a parent, it is common to feel confused or overwhelmed on how to talk about these topics.  Here are some thoughts on how to start the conversation:

First, explore what identity means to you

If you identify as a heterosexual, cisgender, White individual, you may have never felt the need to explore your identity any further.  However, when exploring identity, it is important to not only understand your own identity, but be able to conceptualize what identity means as a concept, and the many ways in which individuals express those identities.

For example: ask yourself what makes up your identity?  If you identify as a woman, what does that mean?  Is it simply the gender assigned to you at birth, or are there aspects of femininity that make up that identity?  Do identifiers like long hair, makeup, or clothing signify femininity to you?  If you identify as heterosexual, is there any ambiguity to who you are attracted to, either physically or emotionally?  Are there aspects of your racial or cultural identity that define who you are, or are there pieces of this identity which feel wrong or foreign to you?   And further, how do you feel about individuals who do not fall cleanly into gender or sexuality categories – such as heterosexual- and male-identifying individuals who wear makeup or have long hair?  Do you categorically believe that boys and men feel emotions differently than girls or women?

At this stage, you may not have answers to these questions, and that is normal!  You may need to do your own research, not just about gender identity, but about other nuances that come with the conversation.  Some examples are: what is the importance of pronouns?  What are identities such as genderqueer and pansexual? Going into this potentially difficult conversation with your child or teen armed with knowledge and open to learning is the best way to prepare.

Second, know your child

Whether we know it or not, children tend to be ready to have these difficult conversations before their parents know it, and sometimes even before their parents are ready to have them!  Listen to the language your children use and how they speak about gender and attraction.  For example, if your child asks about a male-identified peer who wears nail polish, this is a great opportunity to explore gender norms and what it means to be masculine.  Watching a movie where a same-sex couple appears can present questions about sexuality, and how couples can come in many different combinations.

If and when your child starts questioning their own identity, this may be a more difficult topic.  The most important thing to remember is that acceptance, respect, and affection mean more than understanding!  You may not completely understand what your child means when they express that they are gender fluid or want to use they/them pronouns, but accepting them for who they are and understanding that identity is important for the relationship.  While the first identity they align with may not be where they end up, expressing love, acceptance, and curiosity will likely create room for healthy discussion as this identity grows and changes.  Fostering an accepting and caring dialogue about these identities will help your child feel safe and further the conversation as they learn more about themselves.

If you do not have an answer to a question your child has, or feel you do not have the information you need to understand them, encourage your child to research these topics with you.  Learning together can be a powerful tool in helping your child feel more comfortable both with the topic you are researching and with ongoing conversations with you.

Finally, here are some tools to help start the conversation at any age: – the Gender Unicorn is an excellent tool to differentiate between gender and sex, and between physical and emotional attraction.  This can be introduced at any age and is a good tool for all ages.  Using this tool with your child will help to explain the spectrum of all these terms and help them understand where they fall. – Gender and Pronouns is an inclusive guide to how to understand and use all pronouns, both traditional and neopronouns, and how to respectfully ask about someone’s pronouns. – Gender Spectrum provides excellent information for individuals and parents about gender and how to understand it.  Specifically useful is their section on the language of gender, as a tool to learn the vocabulary needed to have these conversations. The Trans Youth Equality Foundation has compiled a list of resources for parents, consisting not only of educational material about gender but of legal and educational resources for youth who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming and experience harassment and bullying because of this.

Some final thoughts

As with any conversation with children and teenagers, the most important aspect is to project acceptance – both for them, and the topic at hand.  Check in with yourself about any prejudices you may hold and any topics you feel uncomfortable broaching, and think about how you may react when those topics are presented.  Try to remain neutral, impart information and let your children and teens form their own opinions with the information presented. Above all, remember that there is never a “right” or “wrong” way to handle these difficult matters, only the way which works for you and your family.  As long as you and your child feel safe in the relationship, there will be room for learning, growth and change.