Q: Five months ago, my 16-year-old daughter approached my husband and me and informed us that she is nonbinary. We’re not sure what to do. We think it may be just a “phase.” She and all of her close friends (seven total) are all identifying themselves using the monikers bisexual, nonbinary, trans, polyamorous and a whole host of other words that have sent all the parents to the dictionary. They have spent a lot of energy discussing how their favorite celebrities and influencers identify in an interview or on social media.
My teen says they’re nonbinary. How do we know it isn’t a phase?
I don’t want to harm her by rejecting what she is identifying as, but I also want her to find an authentic expression of herself, and I feel as if this may not be it.
Two months ago, she began insisting that we refer to her by a new name, which I try my best to remember and call her. The name she was given at birth was a beautiful name, one she used to be proud of. Now she complains that I am “deadnaming” her if I call her by her “birth name.”
There is no attempt by the mental health professionals or school counselors to even entertain that maybe she is confused — quite the contrary. The school counselor said schools are not allowed to question or challenge who or what the student identifies as, for fear of a lawsuit. Even the clergy person I asked to speak to my daughter only wanted to help her develop something they termed as a “lesbian identity.” Every professional has admonished and chastised my husband and myself to not even question my daughter’s decisions as to what she is, but to simply accept whatever she offers to us, even though she has insisted she was four different things over the past few months.
I am so sad. I want her to become whomever she is destined to be, and I would be happy with that. Is it possible for a teen to identify as something different every month? How much influence do a teen’s friends have on each other to identify?
How do we find a therapist, counselor or pastor who can gently ask questions while respecting that perhaps a 16-year-old doesn’t know everything?
A: Thank you for writing; many parents struggle with their children’s gender and sexuality changes, and you are not alone. Our culture has made a huge shift toward openness and acceptance in this domain, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for parents to “get it” the way our teens do. Remember: Any human who didn’t fit the cultural norm (heterosexual) has spent their lives either in a form of hiding or living out loud while often endangering their emotional, physical and economic safety.
While our culture and families are grappling with this enormous shift, I want to be clear around the dangers of denying, shaming or trying to change your daughter when it comes to sexual and gender identity. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “LGB youth are at greater risk for depression, suicide, substance use, and sexual behaviors that can place them at increased risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Nearly one-third (29%) of LGB youth had attempted suicide at least once in the prior year compared to 6% of heterosexual youth.” I’m not exaggerating when I say that it is a matter of life and death to accept LGBTQ+ teens for who they are. So, if you begin to slide back into fear, disbelief and control, repeat this phrase to yourself: “By loving and fully accepting my child, I am helping them to love and fully accept themself.”
When it comes to their teen mind, though, you aren’t wrong to feel as if they are all over the place. Developmentally, teens are in an intense time. Their brains are rapidly growing, and the science shows that they are drawn to risk-taking, as well as to close connections with their friends. But this isn’t all bad. Recent studies have shown that teens are also interested in risk-taking when it benefits not just themselves but also their friends and family. Although this may not seem great to many adults, this risk-taking is a necessary step in them moving from childhood to young adulthood. Can the risks be extreme and dangerous? Yes, but many teens are developing a keen sense of reasoning during this time.
What does this have to do with your child? Well, you may be assuming that the group they are in is pressuring them and influencing their sexuality and gender, but what if your child is purposely surrounding themselves with people who make them feel safe? What if your child is taking the risk of changing their name because they feel safe and accepted? You may think the group is causing the “problem,” but what if their group of friends is a reflection of your child?
I am not suggesting that your child’s nonbinary status isn’t dizzying for you, nor would I expect you to feel neutral about calling your child by another name. I know that fear, confusion, sadness, frustration, worry and anger can come with these changes, and, depending on how you grew up, this could feel downright threatening. But it is time to stop throwing out lines to find an adult to shame your child into a hetero lifestyle. Does your child, at 16, know everything about life? Of course not, and neither do you. Your parenting job isn’t to bring them into line; it is to completely love and accept them for exactly who they are (today, this week, next year, etc.). I rarely give explicit advice in my columns, but the stakes are high for our LGBTQ+ children and teens. You obviously care, and you state that you don’t want to harm your child, so please stop vilifying their decisions.
Instead of convincing your child that they are just a follower of their friends, ask them thoughtful questions. “(Their chosen name), we didn’t grow up with these identities, and we want to understand more about it. Tell us about being nonbinary, from your standpoint.” Then be quiet and listen. You don’t have to get everything right or be perfect; just be open. This is also a good time to affirm your core family values. For instance, you can say: “In our family, honesty, compassion and being with people who affirm us are most important. Your friends must do this for you. What are they like?” Your child may give you a serious case of side-eye — they may not trust you yet — but if you open your doors for your child and their friends (food is the best way), you will probably find some sensitive, tenderhearted, loving teens in your midst.
Finally, there is so much support for you out there, such as from PFLAG, where you can find facts and definitions, as well as groups near you, and amaze.org, which provides age-appropriate, easy-to-digest facts on gender and sexuality. I know it is a brave step to begin to put down your armor and fear, and it will be a process that will unfold for a long time, but it is the difference between maintaining a loving relationship with your daughter and not doing so. Get the help you need; your whole family deserves it. Good luck.