As a teacher whose classroom practices center exploration of self-identity through creative writing, Jennifer Nissley is used to encouraging young people to be their messiest, most authentic selves. Her work inspired her to write The Rules of Us, where the main character, seventeen-year-old Jillian, comes out as queer at the same time as her long-time boyfriend… and learns that it’s okay not to be the person she always thought she was.
Here, Jennifer shares some guidelines for helping your teen navigate their evolving sense of self.
Adolescence is a period of exciting but often tumultuous change, especially if teens are questioning their sexuality and/or gender identity. Of course, we want our teens to feel safe sharing their feelings and experiences with us — but how can we make them feel seen and understood on a topic as personal as their identity without overwhelming them or invalidating what they’re going through? Here are some basic guidelines for helping your teen navigate their evolving sense of self.
Model using gender-neutral language as often as possible.
- High schoolers are barraged with assumptions daily — assumptions that their peers make about them and assumptions that they make about their peers. Living up to these assumptions and going against them can be equally daunting for teens. But by slipping gender-neutral language into everyday conversation, you show that gender and sexuality shouldn’t be assumed by how a person acts or looks. This works when referring to strangers: “Can you go ask that person for an extra bag?” or family members: “Your aunt’s new partner, Fred, will be at the picnic.”
Don’t assume your teen is straight just because they have a close opposite-gender relationship, romantic or platonic.
- Gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum, and we can’t base someone’s identity on whom they’re close with or have dated in the past. If your teen brings up having a crush on someone at school or making a new friend, you could ask, “What is their name? What do you like about them?”
- Likewise, don’t tease your teen about a close, opposite-gender friend. Questions like, “Hey, when are you going to ask her out?” might seem good-natured to you, but it can be painful and isolating for kids who are questioning.
When your kid is ready to talk, listen more than you speak. Once it is your turn…
- It’s natural for you to have questions, but get your teen’s permission to ask them first. Be clear and specific about what you’re trying to understand: “I have a question about what being nonbinary means to you. Do you feel comfortable talking about it?”
- If your teen identifies as LGBTQ+, ask how/when/if they want other family members to know. You should never spread this information without your teen’s explicit permission — including on social media!
- Many kids are scared to come out because they are concerned that what they’re experiencing is bad or abnormal. Validate rather than dismiss their fears: “It’s okay to be worried. There will be lots of emotions around this, and all of them are valid.” As always, ask your child how you can help them navigate this experience.
- You don’t need to be perfect. Acknowledge mistakes, correct them, and approach each conversation with curiosity and compassion.
- People of all ages can shut down when asked if they want to pursue therapy. Instead of asking your teen outright, build a bridge to this conversation more gently: “Would you like to speak to a neutral person outside the family who can provide you with guidance and support?”
Finally, don’t pressure your teen to talk if they signal they’re not ready. The Rules of Us illustrates what can happen to the parent/teen relationship when parents violate this boundary. The more the protagonist, Jillian’s, parents push her to discuss her budding queerness, the further she retreats, throwing up walls to escape their overbearing interest. The good news? It’s easy not to be Jillian’s parents! Tell your kid, “I’ll love you no matter how you identify or who you love.”
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