Parenting has never been easy. There are already so many responsibilities as a parent – keeping appointments, driving to sport events, picking up from school – that having your teen come out as non-binary might seem like one more impossible task to deal with. But, your teenager coming out to you as non-binary isn’t an occasion for panic, and definitely not a sign that something is “wrong” with your teen.
If anything, it’s a sign of trust. And if you play your cards right, even a chance to grow closer to your teen by giving support and helping them with their developing gender identity.
In this article, I’m hoping to soothe any fears and questions you might have as the parent of a non-binary teen and give you possible solutions to the obstacles non-binary teens and their parents sometimes face.
Non-Binary: A Definition
While the lexicon used in association with the LGBTQ community might seem intimidating to people unfamiliar with the community, there is one term you need to know in order to understand what it means for your teen to be non-binary. That word is gender.
Although a complicated subject, someone’s gender is ultimately how they see themselves as a “man” or “woman.” Their identity is not a choice, but rather the way that God created them. Further, a person’s gender can influence the way they dress, speak, what names and pronouns they are called by, and the kind of things they do for fun. Gender is not the same as sex, which is more closely linked to a person’s parts at birth (a biological male or female).
For example, a biological woman might also identify as a man via sporting men’s suits, going by the name “Jack” as opposed to “Jacklyn,” and asking to be referred to as “he” as opposed to “she.”
So what does it mean for your teen to be non-binary? Essentially, it means that your teen feels they do not fit into either of the traditional, binary gender categories of “man” and “woman.” They may ask to go by a different name, change the way they dress, and ask people to use new pronouns when referring to them.
It does not mean that your teen is transgender (a transgender person is someone who’s gender identity does not fit their biological sex). Being non-binary also doesn’t imply anything about your child’s sexual orientation. However, those might be conversations you would love to have with your teen to more fully understand their sexuality and gender identity.
Is it possible my teen is just confused?
Despite the fact that gender is a complicated issue, the answer is probably no. Studies suggest humans already start forming their gender identities between ages 3 and 5, and that people identifying as non-binary is not new. Most societies throughout history have had members who feel they don’t fit in as a “man” or a “woman.” Discounting your teen’s gender identity by treating them as confused might make them feel isolated and like they have no space to be themselves, which could result in negative mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
It’s important to understand that being non-binary is not a mental illness. However, your non-binary teen might experience moments of discrimination, and these experiences may lead to mental health issues as well as an increased chance of engaging in risky behaviors if they feel they have no space to be heard, supported, and validated. It can be particularly nerve wracking to face coming out in certain religious communities because not every member of the church is tolerant of transgender people. Repressing stress makes it worse, and so it is extra important than your teen feels relaxed, heard, and supported from those closest to them.
What can I do to help?
Gender is personal and needs to be explored individually. It’s not your duty as a parent to help your teen “decide” on a gender. Your role is as a supporter, and your teen is the leader.
First and foremost, do everything you can to make your teenager feel secure speaking with you about being non-binary. You might want to start conversations that help you understand their gender identity and what it means to them. If you don’t know where to start, try something like:
Hey, Grayson. Thanks for telling me that you’re non-binary. I appreciate your trust and hope we can keep talking about this openly. I’m sorry if I seem old-fashioned, but I’m not sure what non-binary means. It’s not that I don’t believe you, and I’m not mad at all, but can you help me understand so I know how I can help and be supportive?”
A conversation like this may start an explanation of what non-binary to your teen. It will also set a positive trend in terms of having conversations with your teen about sexuality, gender, and other possibly uncomfortable topics. This trust and communication is not only beneficial in this situation, but in most parenting scenarios.
Is there more to it?
Its true society isn’t always accepting non-binary people. Your teenager might face bullying due to their gender identity, and as a parent, you may find yourself in awkward situations with other parents or members of your local parish.
Luckily, there are ways to reduce these interactions. You can look for TGNC (transgender and non-conforming)-friendly organizations that cater to non-binary people, as well as search for groups for your teenager to join with other non-binary people. It could also be useful to bring up a gender summit, or dialogue, in your local church group to help familiarize other adults and teens of the issues surrounding gender. Finding your teen a community of support is incredibly important, and in today’s progressive climate there is a multitude of options. And, if your teen is facing serious hardship due to their identity, special counselors exist to assist those who struggle due to their unaccepted genders and sexualities.
While there are resources to help make life manageable for your non-binary teen, keep in mind that no parent can make life perfect for their child. With this in mind, your primary job as the parent of a non-binary teenager is to foster a community of openness and conversation.
Your teen has found out they’re non-binary. Yes, this can be complicated. But, with the right help from you as a parent, they can still develop into their gender confidently. You might 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.