When you brought home your new little boy or girl over a decade ago, you probably thought about what they’d be like during childhood, adolescence and adulthood. If you have a daughter, you might have envisioned going to dance recitals, taking her shopping for a prom dress, and one day seeing her get married to a young man. If you have a son, you might have looked forward to baseball games, tuxedos and one day seeing him propose to a young woman. If your teen has gender identity issues, however, this might turn all of your daydreams upside down. Not only that, but you may have a hard time understanding what your teen is going through. Take a look at this information about gender identity issues in teenagers to learn how to relate to and help your child as he or she navigates a path less traveled.
Sexual Orientation During the Teen Years
While most teens do end up being heterosexual, somewhere around 10 percent of people are gay. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to have same-sex crushes and to identify as bisexual or homosexual, even if it turns out later that they’re heterosexual. On the other hand, if a teen says that he or she is attracted to people of the same sex, there’s a good possibility that they are actually gay. Time will tell in most cases. Sometimes people aren’t sure of their sexuality for decades, though, so there’s no rush.
If your teen comes to you and says that he or she is gay, it’s important to be supportive and to show unconditional love regardless of your own personal feelings. Even if you are very supportive of gay rights and are open-minded about sexuality, it’s possible that you will feel shocked or sad to find out that your own child is gay. This can be a normal reaction and does not mean that anything is wrong with you or your love for your child, but seek counseling rather than burden your child with your feelings on the matter.
Remember that although being gay or bisexual can mean that your child is more at risk of depression or anxiety, this is often only true when kids feel rejected or ostracized by their family or their peers. Teens of any sexual preference can be happy and fulfilled, and having supportive people in their lives boost those odds.
Gender identity is different from sexual orientation. Instead of gender identity being about who the individual finds attractive, it’s about how they feel inside. Most of us begin to feel specifically male or female during early childhood. It goes beyond whether a child likes to play with dolls or cars; it’s an internal understanding of maleness and femaleness, and which the child identifies with more strongly. If a person identifies as being the opposite gender, or no gender, it’s a condition called gender dysphoria.
Sometimes a young child will be able to say that they feel more like the gender they were not born with. Other times, however, a gender identity epitome doesn’t occur until the teen years. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the feelings change during the teen years, only that until now, your adolescent might not have been able to put a finger on it. For many teens who identify with the opposite gender, they might refer to themselves as transgender. They also might begin making plans to transition to the other sex at some point in the future.
It’s important to understand that while some teens who identify as the opposite gender will, in fact, decide to transition as adults, it’s also not uncommon for these feelings to fade as time goes on. This might be truer in teens who did not begin having such feelings as young children. As a parent, the best thing you can do is to support and love your child while waiting for him or her to figure out who they are.
Therapy for Gender Identity Issues
Some religions and philosophies believe that gender dysphoria is a moral failing and can be changed through prayer ceremonies or certain types of counseling or therapies. In fact, conversion therapy for sexual orientation and sexual identity has been shown to be not only ineffective, but also cruel and abusive. Do not fall into the trap of trying to change who your child is or how he or she identifies in terms of gender. Being gay or having gender dysphoria is not a mental illness.
Seeing a counselor for confusing gender identity issues, however, is not harmful and can be very helpful for a confused or frightened teen. Look for someone who is well-versed with the issues surrounding gender dysphoria, various sexual orientations, or whatever the issue is. Avoid therapists who feel that conversion therapy is an acceptable practice or who feels that homosexuality or gender dysphoria is a sin or otherwise a case of poor judgment.
Depression and Gender Identity Issues
Unfortunately, teens who have gender dysphoria can be at a higher risk of developing depression or becoming suicidal than the general population. A lot of this is attributed to the fear of (and the reality of) rejection by their friends and family.
If your teen is showing signs of depression or suicidal thoughts, visit your pediatrician or family doctor to see if a referral to a counselor is warranted. If they are planning or trying to act on their suicidal thoughts, call an ambulance or head to your closest emergency room.
Helping Your Teen Find Support for Gender Identity Issues
In addition to a counselor who can help your teen sort out his or her feelings and accept him- or herself for who they are, a strong social group can help your teen feel accepted and included. Look for a support group for LBGT teens and encourage your teen to join. If your current church or place of worship is not accepting, look for one that is. Unitarian Universalist churches are known for being friendly to those on the LBGT spectrum, and they encompass a wide range of beliefs. Also, find out if your child’s high school has a gay-straight alliance or another club that is friendly to those with gender dysphoria.
As a parent, you are in the perfect position to offer unconditional love and support to your child. Take this opportunity seriously as they figure out their gender identity and sexual orientation, and don’t be afraid to find support for yourself if you need it as you help your adolescent navigate this tricky road.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.