How to Discuss Gender Identity with Children and Teens

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There are many complex topics school counselors must tackle, and issues related to gender identity certainly fit the bill. Although this topic is frequently misunderstood, conversations related to gender identity are becoming more common in a variety of settings. With the unique role they play, school counselors can provide objective education for children and teens who have questions and support those who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming. Doing so requires a better understanding of the issues involved and how to effectively discuss this important topic.

A growing conversation

Gender identity is defined as one’s personal experience of one’s gender, separate from biological sex. As visibility for transgender and gender nonconforming communities increases, there’s a growing need for informed and supportive discussions to promote inclusivity and safety for those who are affected. That’s why the USC Rossier’s online ME in School Counseling program created “Students and Gender Identity: A Toolkit for Schools.” This resource provides key principles for communicating about this topic; strategies for creating an inclusive environment; and a glossary of terms to describe gender expression and identity to ensure supportive communication. Here are a few:

  • Agender: Not identifying with any particular gender; sometimes referred to as “nongender.” 
  • Bigender: Identifying with both male and female genders. 
  • Cisgender: Someone whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were designated at birth.
  • Gender Binary: The cultural concept of two traditional and opposed genders, male and female.
  • Gender-Fluid: Someone who identifies outside the male/female binary or with a range of femaleness and maleness. Also referred to as gender-queer. 
  • Polygender: Identifying with multiple genders. 
  • Third-Gender: A person who identifies neither as male or female. 
  • Transgender (TG): People with a gender identity different from the one assigned at birth. 

 

Talking to children and teens

Although talking to kids about gender identity might seem like a daunting task, some find that children make it easier than expected. Since experts believe most children begin to identify strongly with a gender as early as 3 years old, these conversations may occur earlier than you think. When they do, it’s important to use an age-appropriate approach to meet a child’s individual needs. Planned Parenthood provides some specific recommendations about how to do that:

  • Preschool
  • Examine your own values to address unconscious biases you may be communicating.
  • Be aware of the influence of gender-specific interventions you use regarding things like books, toys, etc.
  • Make the most of a child’s curiosity about others to create teachable moments about accepting and embracing our differences.   
  • Let children make their own activity choices instead of assigning them to gender boxes.
  • If a child wants to talk about gender, make the most of the opportunity by exploring stereotypical language and ideas they may have picked up.
  • Elementary school
  • Be aware kids become keenly aware of their own gender identities during these years.
  • Encourage and support a child’s varied interests as they explore their options.
  • Use books, movies, TV and other resources to provide examples of role models that defy gender stereotypes.
  • Encourage conversations about various family structures and reinforce inclusion and acceptance.
  • Be honest and direct when answering questions, offering age-appropriate explanations.
  • Middle school
  • Know that during these years, kids are starting to better understand who they are in relation to others. 
  • Educate preteens about gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression and be a role model of respect and support.
  • Learn the correct words to use when talking about transgender and gender nonconforming people so you can be supportive in the right way.
  • Encourage conversations that help kids explore their true interests that aren’t tied to gender stereotypes.
  • Talk with preteens about their feelings and encourage free expression.
  • High school
  • Since sexual orientation and gender identity are two different things, make sure you and the teen are on the same page when discussing them.
  • Encourage open and honest discussion by showing respect and support.
  • Understand that by this age, most individuals are no longer exploring, but have fully embraced the gender identity they’ve chosen.
  • If a teen has self-identified as transgender or gender nonconforming, use the teen’s preferred gender pronouns.
  • Provide guidance and support to teens who are grappling with coming out to others.

Strategies for parents

Parents whose kids identify with a gender or term outside the “norm” can benefit from all these tips, but it’s critical to remember that a parent’s response to these dynamics can have profound and lasting implications. According to Gender Spectrum: “Research has shown that supportive parenting can significantly affect our children’s positive outlook on their lives, their mental health and their self-esteem. On the other hand, rejecting parenting practices are directly correlated to gender-expansive and transgender youth being more depressed and suicidal.”

Here are strategies Gender Spectrum recommends for parents:

  • Create a supportive family environment.
  • Require respect within the family.
  • Express love and support for a child’s gender expression.
  • Allow zero tolerance for disrespect or pressure.
  • Maintain open and honest communication with the child.
  • Support all members of the family who need it.
  • Allow children to be exactly who they are.

Alexis Anderson is a senior digital PR coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health and occupational therapy programs. Find her on Twitter @HeyLexHey.

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