Guiding teens through questions about gender identity


How can parents support a child who may be transgender or gender-nonconforming? Research shows that LGTBQ youth have higher rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide attempts; so if you suspect your child may be thinking about these issues, you probably want to help – or at least not make life more difficult.

Natalia Ramos

The good news is that parenting skills that work best are the same ones that apply to raising most teens: encouraging dialogue, conveying a non-judgmental attitude and modeling positive behavior.

“Many kids and teens aren’t sure about their sexual and gender identities. So it’s generally good to be open, accepting of whatever identity they present,” said Dr. Natalia Ramos, a child psychiatrist who specializes in LGTBQ issues at UCLA’s Semel Institute. “We know identities can change through the teenage years. This is a process.”

Ramos offers some ways for parents to support their children:

• Be open-minded and curious. “Do you know anyone who’s trans?” you can ask. Or, “Your friend who’s coming over – what pronouns do they use?” Teens may shut down these questions: “‘Mom, I don’t want to talk about it!' " Ramos says. However, by simply asking the question, you are signaling to your child that you are open to talking about the topic.

• Recognize that it’s a journey. It’s helpful for teens to hear that it’s okay to just be themselves, to not be sure of their sexuality and gender identity, and to be different than their friends and peers. Express to them that you love them “no matter what,” and that “we’re here to talk whenever you feel like you want to talk.”

• Model kindness and openness; be aware of the messages your actions and words may send. Some kids report hearing family members make homophobic or transphobic remarks. “This can have a huge impact on them, whether or not they self-identify as gay or trans or anything else.”

• Foster your teen’s resilience; nurture their ability to face obstacles and setbacks. For many teens, resilience involves developing meaningful peer relationships and having positive role models, Ramos says. For others, it's having close support at home, or engaging with a supportive community center, activity or group.

• Read up on the issues with these resources: LA LGBT Center, the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG.