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Helping Teenagers With Gender Identity

by Rebekah Richards

Gender identity refers to a person's internal sense of being male or female, regardless of their genetic makeup and physical anatomy. Most people have a gender identity that matches their anatomy, but some people, who are referred to as transgender, feel their physical body doesn't match their true selves. Many people who are transgender report feeling as if they are trapped in the wrong body, according to KidsHealth.org. If your teenager is confused about her gender identity, reacting with support and affection and providing appropriate resources will help her determine who she really is.

Gender Identity Basics

Children begin to express gender identity as toddlers and preschoolers, according to the National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University. Being transgender isn't a choice; experts believe gender identity is a mix of genetic and environmental factors, reports KidsHealth.org. However, gender identity is different from sexual orientation, or who a person is attracted to. Teens who are transgender can be straight, gay, bisexual or lesbian, just like cisgender teens, or those whose anatomy and gender identity match.

Gender Expectations

Gender identity is tied to society's expectations of how males and females behave, including the clothes they wear, traits they exhibit and jobs they have. Children learn about gender expectations from family, friends, television, advertisements and other sources. People often face criticism for breaking gender roles, whether they are transgender or not. Challenging gender roles and pointing out negative stereotypes in the media can help everyone feel more equal, regardless of their gender identity, asserts Planned Parenthood.

Supporting Your Teen

If your teenager questions her gender identity or identifies herself as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, your family's reaction directly impacts her health and mental health. Avoid keeping your teen's identity a secret, pressuring her to be more feminine or masculine and do not tell her that God will punish her or suggest that you are ashamed of her. Instead, support your teen's gender expression, require family members to respect your teen, be affectionate and loving, and find a supportive faith community, recommends the National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University.

Myths and Stigma

Gender identity and sexual orientation is not a choice or a phase, according to the National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University. However, stigma and prejudice surrounding LGBT issues can make life difficult for transgender teens. LGBT teens who feel rejected by their family and friends have a higher risk of suicide, depression, drug use, and risky behavior such as unprotected sex.

Resources

Resources can provide teens and their families with more information about gender identity and options such as changing their name, dressing as the opposite gender or using surgery or hormones to change their bodies. PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, has state and local chapters that offer education and support. The Family Acceptance Project also provides resources to help families support LGBT children. Teens may also benefit from counseling and local LGBT resources.

About the Author

Rebekah Richards is a professional writer with work published in the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "Brandeis University Law Journal" and online at tolerance.org. She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in creative writing, English/American literature and international studies. Richards earned a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.

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