Three Ways Parents Can Support Teens Questioning Sexuality and Gender Identity

Michelle Johnson, MA, LPC, shares three tips for parents who have teenagers questioning sexuality and gender identity.
The adolescent years can be chock full of turmoil fueled by the perfect storm of physical, mental and emotional development overload. There’s no question that kids face a multitude of challenges when it comes to figuring out how to fit in with and how to stand out from their peers. One area that an increasing number of adolescents are exploring is sexual and gender identity.

For some parents, the thought of their child questioning and experimenting with some of these ideas can be terrifying. Some parents want to shut this exploration down completely for fear that their child will “take it too far,” while other parents want to be hands-off and “give their child space” out of fear that their child will rebel and hate the parents. There are many parents who just don’t know what to do with it at all.

Both the “shutting down” and “hands-off” approaches are normal, but both are based on parents’ fear and may not be the best responses to the teen’s needs. Here are a few ways you can approach questions of identity with your teen that can lead to openness, understanding, and mutual respect that can foster a loving and rewarding relationship.

1) Lean in, not out or over
Before making judgments, responding in anger or defensiveness, or resigning to letting your teen explore without boundaries or limits, lean into your relationship with them. Validate your child’s questions, ask your child further questions about how he or she is feeling about his or her experience, and help him or her to understand that you are there for questions. Kids today can find many answers to their questions at the touch of a button, but the internet and social media are no substitute for real relationship; parents can strengthen their relationship with their kids through helping them navigate and offering guidance through these areas. Sit down, have an ice cream cone together, and allow your child to talk—it’s an invaluable opportunity to listen to their heart.

2) Talk about the meanings of labels and words with your child
Adolescents especially can gravitate towards over-identifying with labels because they carry meaning, which offers acceptance into a group. There are many terms used to identify a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, some of which your child might already know and use. It is important to have conversations with your child about what the words mean to them as well as why the labels might be appealing to them (they may give your teen a sense of belonging or security for “fitting in” and being accepted by peers).

Although labels can be tempting for how they might help us fit in, they can also be constrictive. They put us in a box that says, “You only fit in here as long as this label fits, so either conform to the label, or find somewhere else to fit.” Some of the pressure to define and label may be relieved when kids understand that their sexual and gender identities are meant to be a part of who they are, but not define their whole existence. Encourage them to lean into their talents, interests, and hobbies that give expression to their whole being, rather than making sexuality and gender identity the only part of them that finds expression. You can also remind kids that they will undergo many changes in many different ways well into their twenties. This may help them feel like they don’t have to have everything figured out at 14.

3) Build community for you and your family
Whether you have a strong relationship with your child, are in a time of transition as a family, or are struggling with communication and relationship in the teen years, it can be hard (or even sound impossible) to converse with your teen about questions related to gender identity and sexuality. Consider inviting community to come alongside your family and navigate the journey with you. Find people you and your child trust--teachers, pastors, friends’ parents, a healthy youth group, etc.--who will invest in what’s best for your child and pursue meaningful relationship with him or her. Professional counseling is also a great resource for strengthening your community. Teens may balk at the idea of having a therapist, but usually come to value the trust relationship with the therapist and the space to just process with someone who will listen on a regular basis. In my experience working with teens, the parent-child relationship is often strengthened by having a third party help to navigate the intricacies and turmoil of the teenage years.

As a parent, you play a vital role in helping your teen navigate issues of sexuality and gender identity. Pursuing relationship, removing pressure, and seeking help from trustworthy people can strengthen family relationships and help your teen focus on navigating this journey well within a safe, supportive, and loving environment.
Michelle Johnson has been with ALCS for five years and counsels clients from our Kyle location. Michelle has a heart for working with adolescents, couples, families, and individual adult women.  She has a special interest in working with women and couples who have experienced trauma related to pregnancy and childbirth. For more information about Michelle's practice, click here. To set up an appointment with Michelle, call us today!

Resources for further reading
Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends by Mark Yarhouse
Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture by Mark Yarhouse
Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry by Mark Yarhouse

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