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How to talk to teenagers about gender without seeming out of touch
Talking to teens about gender can feel like a minefield for many parents, but it’s important to keep the lines of communication open
If you’re the parent of a teenager or a pre-teen, like me, you may not have heard of Demi Lovato but, the chances are, your child has.
Lovato, a 28 year old singer, was the latest celebrity to come out as non-binary last week. The Sorry (Not Sorry) singer wrote: “Today is a day I’m so happy to share more of my life with you all. I am proud to let you know that I identify as non-binary & will officially be changing my pronouns to they/them moving forward.”
Using they/them as pronouns “best represents the fluidity I feel in my gender expression,” Lovato said. They join a growing list of celebrities, including Sam Smith, Jonathan Van Ness and Jameela Jamil, to identify as non-binary – which means not identifying as male or female, and tending not to conform to gender norms of either.
More and more, parents are finding themselves having conversations about gender with their teenage children – conversations for which the older generation are perhaps not exactly well prepared.
Even the most well-meaning parent can easily find themselves saying the wrong thing or causing offence with an out-of-date expression, an off-colour joke or a hasty and dismissive opinion. No one wants to be made to feel like they’re out of touch, so sometimes it may feel as though the safest option is to avoid talking about gender at home altogether.
But, like it or not, changing pronouns or taking a more fluid approach to gender is becoming increasingly normal for today’s teens. So what do you do if, for instance, your child comes home and tells you that one of the children in their class, who used to be called Harriet now wants to be known as Harry?
There are many different gender identities, and teenagers are likely to be aware of most of them. Which is not to say that you have to swot up on them all as a parent, but be aware that your teenager will probably believe they are all equally valid. Take these labels seriously, even if they’re new to you.
And although discussing gender issues can seem like a minefield at first, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open, says senior therapist Sally Baker.
If your child criticises and closes you down in conversations for the language you use around gender, then promise you’ll listen more. Assure them you are open to learning and understanding,” she advises.
Remember, what may seem unusual or difficult to accept to parents seems pretty standard to teenagers in 2021 and parents need to get on board with that and learn from their kids.
If the prospect of a one-to-one discussion seems daunting and you and your teenager have never talked about sexual orientation or gender before, look for chances to let them know that you think people of all orientations deserve respect, says Sue Atkins, former deputy head and parenting expert.
“You can talk with them about LGBT friends or family, or even characters on TV or celebrities as a way to say that you respect people of all sexual orientations and to ask your teen what they think,” she says.
It’s also important for parents to note that sexual orientation and gender identity are two different things, Atkins adds. And that an intrinsic part of being a teenager is figuring out who you are — including gender identity.
No matter what your teen’s identity, they are likely to have many questions,” she says.
Words and terminology are hugely important and emotive. Terms such as transgendered, transvestite or tranny are outdated and can be hurtful, Atkins says.
Ask your teen what sort of words to use when referencing someone who wants to be known by a different gender and let them lead the way. Then follow their example. It’s about being open-minded and being prepared to listen more than you speak, Atkins advises.
Let your child know that you are their ally and also let other friends and family members know that you’ve had a discussion about gender so that a well-meaning grandparent doesn’t put their foot in it. Ask your child open-ended questions, such as, ‘what do you think about that?’ and let them know you’re coming from things from a position of acceptance.
Ultimately, it’s about letting your child know that you are willing to try and see the world from their point of view and grow with the times.
Click here to read the article in The Telegraph