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How to tackle gender issues with kids

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In today’s world, gender can be a touchy subject.

With debate raging across the country, parents may struggle with ways to support their children as they relate to friends and classmates who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or gender non-conforming (GNC).

Parents may need extra support to help address these issues in a healthy way, especially if their children are questioning their sexual orientation and/or gender identification.

Starting the conversation

Parents seeking resources related to sexual orientation and gender identity are reaching out for help daily, says Ryanmarie Rice Tover, chief of staff at Compass Community Center. Compass. Compass aims to diminish stereotypes by challenging long-standing misconceptions about the character of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Tover says she thanks parents for taking the time to seek resources.

“It's the unfortunate truth that, for as many parents as we do hear from, we have three times as many youth in our program whose parents never reach out,” she says. “I suspect the number of LGBT youth who aren't in our program and whose parents never reach out is much larger than we may ever know.”

Tover advocates sticking to the facts if your child is asking questions about sexual orientation and/or gender identity. 

“Take a moment to brush up on the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation; they are different and distinct,” she says.

Here are some helpful definitions, from the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood:

  •  Sexual orientation: An inherent emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people.
  • Biological sex: Anatomy as female, male or intersex. It includes internal and external sex organs, chromosomes and hormones.
  • Gender identity: One’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither; how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One's gender identity can be the same or different from their biological sex at birth.

Modeling a sense of understanding

 Tover encourages parents to listen, after familiarizing themselves with the terminology.

 “Most of the time, people — especially young people — just want to feel like they're being heard,” she says. “Mirroring their language back to your child lets them know that you are present and listening. It's okay to not have all the answers. If you can hold a space for you and your child to share open and honest communication without judgment, it will make all the difference. If your child knows they have you on their side, they're already ahead of the game.”

 Approaching a child’s questions about gender and sexuality in a loving way helps parents to foster honest, healthy, age-appropriate conversations for the entire family.

Katherine Murphy, director of programs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Palm Beach County, offers the “Lead with Love” film as a starting place for practical guidance for parents who recently learned their child is lesbian, gay or bisexual.

The 35-minute “Lead with Love” documentary, in which four families openly share their feelings and experiences on sensitive issues, is free online.

Murphy has facilitated groups with the film’s “LEAD with Love: Quick Guide for Parents.” The acronym LEAD suggests to parents: Let your affection show; Express your pain away from your child; Avoid rejecting behaviors; Do good before you feel good.

Examples of showing emotional affection include expressions such as, “I love you, I care about you and I’m proud of you.” Remind them of ways in which you notice their intelligence, creativity and willingness to be a good brother or sister. Remain physically affectionate by hugging and patting them on the back and doing activities together you both enjoy, such as hiking, camping, biking, shopping or attending sports events.

 Encouraging authenticity

Leading with a loving nature at home reduces the child’s isolation and promotes a sense of community beyond the family’s sphere. Tover and Murphy suggest that parents seek resources locally and nationally, including programs at community centers such as Compass Youth Group, which provides support, education, empowerment and community organizing for LGBT and/or GNC and non-binary youth and their allies in Palm Beach County. The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.

Family rejection causes a serious physical and mental health impact, Murphy says. Those rejected by their families because of their gender identity suffer lower self-esteem. They have fewer people they can turn to for help and are more isolated than those accepted by their families.

 “A commonality I have seen with transgender and gender non-conforming teens whose parents are non-accepting is high rates of non-suicidal self injury,” she says. “It is often cutting or other risk-taking behaviors that will prompt parents to seek care and support for their children.”

After doing all you can, it’s important to remain accessible to your child but also realistic about your abilities.

“At the end of the day, you can't protect your child from external sources of discrimination, homophobia or transphobia,” Tover says. “However, you can give them the tools to better deal with it. Self-esteem and a strong support system can make all the difference.”

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