How to Talk to Kids About Gender and Sexuality

By Aron C. Janssen, MD

As adults we know that gender and sexuality are far from one size fits all. Some girls prefer to play the roles of boys and vice versa. Some children may feel more comfortable playing with peers of the opposite sex, or may frequently cross-dress. Others may be exploring their sexual orientation or seeking to understand the sexual or gender identity of their parents or siblings. While exploring gender identity and sexual orientation are a normal part of kids’ development, there is no user’s manual for talking to your kids about these issues.

One of the tasks of growing up is discovering who you are and what that means about what you like and who you like. Every person goes through this process of exploration, but what happens when it leads to feeling different, confused, or even alone? For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, this normal developmental process can sometimes lead to feeling the need to hide parts of themselves from the people they care about most.

Unfortunately, both keeping a secret about gender identity or sexual orientation and sharing that secret can have risks. As such, the LGBT population consistently represents an underserved community of young people who are vulnerable to unique and tragic mental health consequences. Up to a quarter of children who come out to their parents are kicked out of their homes, and about half of all homeless youth in New York City identify as LGBT. LGBT youth have higher rates of suicide attempts, substance abuse, HIV, and are more frequently victims of violence in their communities. Additionally, it is difficult for these youths to seek out treatment and support when doing so can lead to loss of family and shelter.

The good news is that having a loving, supportive family and caring adults who can help children accept themselves can protect against all of these potentially disastrous outcomes. So how do you recognize when children are starting to question their gender identities or sexual orientations? How can parents best help their children? And how do we begin to talk about such difficult issues?

Keep an open mind, be curious, and engage your child.
Up to 10 percent of the population will identify as LGBT, and many more than those 10 percent will question their identity at some point during childhood or adolescence. Don’t make assumptions about your child’s gender identity or sexual orientation based on interests or activities! A preference for sports or dolls might not mean anything more than that. Studies suggest that gender identity and sexual orientation are determined mainly by genetics, so know that asking questions will not change your child’s sexual or gender preference. Be curious—if you don’t ask, most children and adolescents will not volunteer this information. Questions such as: “Do you have any crushes at school? Is your crush a girl or a boy?” will likely make you more uncomfortable than your child. But making the effort to ask is well worth any momentary discomfort. Giving your child the opportunity to hear that you are open to either answer is invaluable!

These are often difficult topics to broach, and speaking frankly with your child about sex and sexuality does not come naturally to most people. Your child will pick up on and respond to your level of comfort with the topic. Take the opportunity to practice—with your spouse or your partner, your parents, a friend who may be preparing for the same conversation with his or her kids, or even by yourself in front of a mirror. Most teens get information about sex from other teens and from the media, so this is a prime opportunity to provide accurate information about sex and development and build a level of trust with your child. There is no wrong way to bring up these topics, but try to avoid giving a child the opportunity to opt out. For example, many parents ask their children, “Do you have any questions or concerns about sex?” When you give a child the opportunity to say no, they often will. Sometimes it helps to make the child feel like part of a bigger group—for example, a good opening line might be: “Almost everyone has questions about sex, but few people feel comfortable talking about it.” Acknowledge the possibility that it’s a tough topic, but it’s important to talk about it, despite its toughness!

Media is changing and there are more and more positive and highly visible LGBT role models. This is great for LGBT youth, but it does not substitute for real people in a child’s day-to-day life. Identify role models in your community, and if you don’t know of any, ask! Organizations such as PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) can help you to connect with other parents and families. Whenever possible, try to normalize various gender and sexual preferences in everyday conversation. For example, if your child comes home from school and tells you, “My teacher is getting married!” Try a response such as, “How wonderful! Is she marrying a man or a woman?” The less you assume, the more likely children will feel comfortable talking to you if they begins to question their gender identities or sexual orientations.

Get Involved and Stay Involved.
Despite increases in tolerance, discrimination and prejudice continue to exist. Kids who are questioning their identities will hear the phrase “that’s so gay” and immediately recognize it’s not always okay to be LGBT. Find out about your school district’s policies on LGBT youth and bullying, and let your child know that you are there to help if he or she ever begins to feel unsafe at school. If there is a lack of acceptance from within your own family from a spouse, grandparents, other family member, know that you are not alone. Many parents have gone through what you’re experiencing now. The most important thing to keep in mind is how you can help your child be the happiest he or she can be. That involves offering love and support, and, if necessary, getting help if need be. Ask your child about his or her feelings, and ask for help from professionals when you have questions or concerns—that’s what we’re here for!

Try, and Try Again.
Many kids assume their parents will have terrible reactions to questions around sexual and gender identity, and those thoughts can lead to negative beliefs about themselves and their futures. The only way to challenge these assumptions is head on. If you continue to be loving and supportive and show that you have an open mind by asking the right questions, you will demonstrate a level of comfort with gender and sexuality that will help your children know they can come to you when they are ready.

Seek Help.
The NYU Child Study Center’s Gender and Sexuality Clinical Services provide support to children and their families who may benefit from working with a mental health professional.