Everybody knows parenting is hard. And everybody also knows that teenagers are a species all their own. Being the parent of a teen can be exhausting, and having your teen come out as non-binary may be the one thing you were never expecting.
The initial wave of questions and concerns might overwhelm you, but your teen’s revelation is nothing to panic over. On the contrary, your teen telling you they are non-binary is a sign of immense trust. And don’t worry, there’s certainly nothing “wrong” with your teen.
In this article I hope to lessen some of the fears and answer some of the questions you might have as the parent of a non-binary teen, as well as present ways of dealing with the challenges non-binary teenagers and their parents occasionally face.
Gender is the most important word to understand when it comes to being non-binary. Simply put, a person’s gender is their understanding of how they fit into the categories “man” and “woman.” This is not to be confused with a person’s sex, which refers to their biological assignment at birth, male or female (their parts). Gender might impact the clothes a person wears, how a person speaks, a person’s name, what a person does for fun, and even a person’s pronouns.
To illustrate, imagine a person who is biologically a male but wears makeup, high-heeled shoes, goes by the name “Meg,” and asks to be called “she” instead of “he.” Meg’s sex is male, but his gender is most likely a “woman.” This is an example of a transgender person, since Meg’s sex and gender don’t align with each other.
A non-binary person, on the other hand, feels they do not fit into either of the “man” or “woman” gender categories. Non-binary people often use the pronouns “they” and “them,” and are not necessarily transgender. Being non-binary also does not say anything about who a person is attracted to (their sexual orientation).
You should talk to your teen about what being non-binary means to them, and how they arrived at this conclusion. It’s likely that they will want to change their pronouns, and is certainly possible they will want to go by a different name and begin wearing different clothes.
No, your teenager is not confused.
Although gender is an incredibly complex issue, research indicates that individuals already start forming gender identities between the ages of 3 and 5. On top of this, non-binary people have been present throughout almost all historical cultures. Your teen isn’t “confused,” and is probably not rebelling, either. They’ve most likely put in a great deal of thought to this incredibly personal issue, and telling you may have been a massive hurdle for them.
It’s important not to discount your teen’s gender identity. If you do, they may feel unsafe, unsupported, and unwilling to talk to you about serious issues they may be facing due to their gender identity. Suppressing things like this can lead to depression and anxiety and will damage the relationship you have with your teen.
Also, keep in mind that while many non-binary people experience mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, being non-binary is not a sign of mental illness or a mental illness in itself. Researchers believe the spike in mental illness among gender minority individuals is due to feelings of isolation from society prompted by harassment, discrimination, and isolation. It’s a sad truth that your teen will likely face these kinds of obstacles, which makes it extra important for them to feel supported and heard by their family and friends. Providing an atmosphere of support will make your teen feel more at ease with their identity and keep them from suppressing their emotions, which could lead to engaging in risky behaviors.
What you can do:
A person’s gender is often private, and all people discover their gender on their own. As a parent, it isn’t your responsibility to help your child “find” or “decide” on a gender. Primarily, your role is as a supporter and caregiver. Providing space for communication and expression is the most important thing you can give your teen.
This might seem like a daunting task. Talking to teens is hard to begin with. Talking to teens about difficult topics like sex and gender may seem borderline impossible. However, I’ve come up with a sample script that may prove useful in getting your teen to open up about their gender identity. Here it is:
“Hello, Gina. First, I want to thank you for telling me you’re non-binary. I know you’ve probably felt this way for a long time, and I appreciate the trust you have in me. I really want us to be able to talk about this. I’m not mad or upset, and I believe what you’re telling me. But would you mind explaining what non-binary means to you? I don’t want to seem rude or offensive, but I’m not totally positive what being non-binary entails. Could you tell me so I have a better idea of how to support you through this?”
Again, it’s important for your teen to feel safe and heard when they speak with you. A line like this may convince your teenager to open up to you about what their gender identity means to them, as well as set the stage for future communication about gender- and sex-related issues.
A few more things:
You may not want to hear it, but it’s unfortunately true that society isn’t always accepting of gender minority individuals. Your teen may face harrasment, bullying, and other forms of discrimination due to their non-binary identity. However, it’s also good to keep in mind that today is the best time in history to be non-binary due to the resources and support available in our continually progressing world.
Many schools are prepared to help non-binary students. If your teen approves, it may be worth notifying their teachers and administrators of their gender identity. This could curb possible incidents at school and create a supportive atmosphere outside of your home. There are also a score of TGNC (transgender and non-conforming)-friendly organizations that cater to non-binary people along with other LGBTQ groups and clubs that give support to gender and sex minority individuals. If your child continues to have issues coping with their gender identity, there are even gender counselors who exist to help.
While these are all invaluable resources, it’s important to recognize that no parent can make life perfect for their teen. There will be changes, challenges, and choices you have to make when dealing with your teens gender identity. It may be hard, but your primary purpose is as a reserve of love, support, and openness for your non-binary teen. And if you keep communicating and working together, you and your teen may even grow closer in the process.
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com, ghostwriter at WriteItGreat.com, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.