by Stacey Vinci
“Is this just a phase?” is a question I often get from parents looking for help with their teens. You begin to notice your teenager changing their appearance, experiencing mood swings, keeping to themselves, engaging in less eye contact with you and almost only engaging with the video, snap, tweet, or gram on their phone. And you think to yourself: “Yeah, this is what I expected…This is what I read would happen during this age… It’s just a phase”.
For some parents, it is just that- a “phase”. A developmental period in which their child is transitioning; growing and changing into a more physically and emotionally mature young adult. For other parents, however, there is much more happening. Along with the expected adolescent mood swings, style changes, and social life influence, they are also navigating the world of gender identity issues: from significant changes in appearance, clothing choices and hairstyles to requests for puberty blockers, hormone treatments, and frequent struggles in everyday life and society to exist as their genuine self. These parents have taken on the role of helping and supporting their child with their exploration of gender identity.
So what is gender identity and how do you know if your child is struggling with it? Gender identity is most easily explained as the way in which a person defines themselves on a scale of maleness to femaleness. Individuals may identify as male, female, neither, both, or “fluid”. An individual’s gender identity does not need to match their sex (genitals) and it does not define their sexual orientation. These three terms are often mixed together by mistake, when they are very separate entities. Although there is a rise in teens and preteens expressing struggles with gender identity, it typically begins much earlier in development. Here are some additional signs that your teen may be struggling with their gender identity:
Expression of or desire to be the opposite or alternate gender (can start at 2yrs)
Discomfort with or rejection of one’s genitals and overall body appearance
Disagreement with assigned pronoun; request to be called an alternate pronoun
Changes in play activity; peer group
Appearing withdrawn or depressed in affect or experiencing significant distress*
*Keep in mind that not every child will identify with a specific gender, nor will every child experience distress with their gender identity. It is important to take into consideration the teen's personality and overall comfort with their body and identity and to support them in their expression of self.
If you think your child may be experiencing issues with gender identity, the most important first step is to create an open, safe, and trusting place for communication and support. Secondly, put in place the professional support system that you and your child will need during this time. By contacting a therapist or counselor specializing in this area you now have a built in system of support, resources, and guidance through each step of your child’s process in achieving a healthy, strong, and positive identity.
Stacey M.Vinci, M.A., LMFT is a PA Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working with teens and their families struggling with anxiety, depression, and trauma-related issues. She also specializes in working with youth in the LGBT community, particularly teens identifying as gender non-conforming or transgender. Stacey’s Trans Teen Therapy Group is currently accepting new clients.
For more information on individual/group openings or alternate resources to help support you and child, contact Stacey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 267-989-9113.