What to Do When: Understanding Non-Binary Gender Expression in Teens (and Adults too!)

communication media and mental health relationships what to do when Jun 20, 2019

Hi Julie,

My daughter came home the other day and told me she has never felt comfortable in her body and doesn’t really feel like a girl or a boy. She said she has been using they pronoun “they” with friends and also has chosen a gender-neutral name. I want to support her - err, them - but I don’t think I understand. Is this a phase? Is she/they transgender? Can you offer any insight?

As a psychotherapist who works with my gender non-conforming kiddos and as a parent of a non-binary child, I am so thrilled to see this question. For the first several years of your child’s life, you were certain you understood your child’s gender. When your child comes out as non-binary, it can be confusing. Even now, I am constantly learning, making mistakes, apologizing, and learning more. This is what an ally does. So, I have put together a list of the most common questions I have been asked as a psychotherapist and as a parent.

What does non-binary mean?

The gender binary is a Western concept that says there are only two gender options: male or female. This is inaccurate, though. There are two anatomical sexes based on a person’s genitals and reproductive organs which are male or female. Gender identity, however, is not based on the anatomical makeup but of one’s own internal experience and perception of self.

A non-binary person is someone who does not identify as only a man or a woman. Someone who is non-binary might feel like a mix of genders, or like they have no gender at all.  

Being non-binary means that an individual does not identify with the gender that was assigned at birth. A recent study from the Journal of Pediatrics noted that more teens are identifying with nontraditional gender labels such as gender-fluid, transgender, and non-conforming.

What does a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” mean?

First, I want to be very clear, non-gender or having a transgender identity is not a mental illness. It cannot be “cured". (See answer below on "is this a phase".) Gender dysphoria is the diagnosis typically given to a person whose assigned birth gender is not the same as the one with which they identify.

Does this mean my child is gay?

Sexual orientation does not depend on gender. Gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. Being non-binary is about your child’s gender identity. Being gay is about your child’s sexual orientation which is the sexual or romantic attraction to another.

Why use the pronoun “they/them"? 

Alternate: Can’t you just use “they” when you’re together and use the old pronoun with everyone else?

Language matters. Non-binary individuals use a variety of pronouns but they/them/their are the most common. Using the pronoun “them” encompasses the gender spectrum. The implication of using the correct pronouns runs deep. Using your child’s preferred pronouns shows respect. To ignore the preferred pronoun dismisses the individual and again puts your comfort above your child’s.

Whether the intent is to dismiss, the message of being misgendered hurts, it invalidates and causes pain. Not sure what an individual’s pronoun is? Use they/them/their or simply ask, “What is your preferred pronoun”.

“Why does my child need to change their name?

Alternate: “Can I just keep calling my child by their birth name?”

For many teens, part of coming out as non-binary is choosing a new name, (especially when an old name is quite gendered). It’s a way to reflect on how your child feels. Honor their choice, and use the chosen name. I also asked if it was okay to still use a nickname for kiddo, and they agreed to that as well because the nickname was a term of endearment between us.

“Does this mean my daughter is now my son?”

A lot of our language is gendered - mother, father, sister, brother, girlfriend, boyfriend, etc.  Ask your child what terms they are comfortable with. For example, person, friend, human, kiddo, sibling can feel much more accepting. One adolescent client told me that their teacher often says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please settle down". They found this very gendered and excluded those that didn’t subscribe to either of those genders. “I wish my teacher would just say, "Hey everyone", or just say, ‘ladies, gentlemen, and everyone in-between".

“Is this a phase?”

Alternate: “If I ignore it, will my child grow out of it.” or “Kids today are just saying it to be different. They will all grow out of this phase and look back someday to say, ‘what was I thinking?!’.”

Pink hair may be a phase. Obsessing over all things Cardi B is a phase. Even using a nickname can be a phase. Being non-binary or transgender is not a phase. Dismissing it as such can be incredibly damaging and hurtful especially during a time when your child needs your support, validation, and love. Even if it was a phase (again, it’s not), does that make a difference? To ignore a child’s reality sends the message that they can only be valued if they subscribe to your ideas of what is acceptable. You are also putting your comfort above your child’s, and the result is that you push your child away.

I’d like to emphasize that trying to change your child’s gender identity – either by denial, punishment, reparative therapy, or any other tactic – is dangerous and can do permanent damage to your child’s mental health. So-called “reparative” or “conversion” therapies have been uniformly condemned as psychologically harmful by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and numerous similar professional organizations.

“All my daughter’s friends say they are non-binary. Now, she is saying it too. I think maybe she is just depressed.”

Alternate: "Is being non-binary just a cover-up for my daughter’s depression?”

While individuals who identify as non-binary or transgender often experience a higher rate of mental health issues, depression doesn’t “cause” gender fluidity. They are two different things. Honor your child’s gender experience. And, if you have concerns about your child’s mental health, please contact a qualified mental health provider immediately.

“How do I tell people?”

Alternate: “How do I respond when people say 'I'm so sorry.’”

First, ask your child what they would like you to do. Some kids feel comfortable keeping it low-key unless asked, and others love the idea of a formal announcement. I can share what I have begun to say when someone has asks, “how is ______?” I say, “They’re doing really well. Thanks for asking.” Or, when someone asks, “Do you have sons? Daughters?” I tell them, “My family stretches across the gender spectrum" or “I have a daughter and two sons, one is non-binary". Some people nod because they understand, and others either ask for clarification, change the subject quickly, or say, “I’m so sorry for you". I always wish for the former but, all too often, I’m met with the latter. Pity is misguided, unwelcome, and divisive. Once you see yourself in the camp of “I’m so glad it’s not my kid", you have created separation, judgment, and prejudice.

Still confused?

It’s okay. It’s not a race to master this information all at once. These are just some things that might change when a non-binary child publicly affirms their gender. And, yes, it can be an adjustment. It can also be a wonderful experience to celebrate your child’s gender. Your support, acceptance, and love make all the difference for your child.