What should I teach my middle schooler about identity?
Who am I? What am I into? Middle school is when your preteen starts asking these questions and exploring their identity in all kinds of ways.
What should I keep in mind?
The preteen years are when your kid better understands who they are in relation to other people. They may start comparing themselves to their peers, older teens, and famous people. Their self-esteem can get wrapped up in how they think they compare to the people around them. At the same time, their own individual interests start being really important to them — hobbies, sports, music, and what they want to look like.
Your preteen’s ideas about gender can play a big role in these interests. How you and your family approach gender stereotypes can have a big impact.
Many preteens also start figuring out who they’re attracted to, and may begin questioning or exploring their sexual orientation. They may have their first crush, and spend hours talking with their friends about who has a crush on who. Some may even have romantic relationships, and that’s totally normal. Don’t worry — at this age they generally don’t last more than a few months and don’t involve any kind of sexual activity.
Support them no matter what. All preteens need encouragement and support when it comes to figuring out who they are. Young LGBTQ people especially need love and support as they figure out their identity.
Be clear about your values when it comes to the kind of love and respect people deserve, no matter their identity. Talk with your preteen about those values and help them understand why they’re important to you.
Educate yourself and your preteen about gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression — and be a good role model. Middle schoolers may start to have lots of questions about gender and sexual orientation. Learn more about gender and sexual orientation so you can be more confident in your answers.
Live up to your values by respecting all kinds of people. Speak out against discrimination (like homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, etc.) where you see it. Act the way you want your preteen to act when it comes to standing up for themselves and others.
You’re an important role model, but preteens can use more than one role model. Expose your preteen to people who defy gender stereotypes (think: female athletes, male dancers, etc), are part of the LGBTQ community, or are just different than you. This can help them see that no matter what their identity or identities, it doesn’t limit the things they can do in life.
How do I talk about gender roles and stereotypes?
By the time middle school rolls around, preteens have taken in lots of information from the world around them about how men and women are “supposed” to behave. They may feel pressure to fit into these roles. But people are happier when they are free to explore their true interests.
For example, a common gender stereotype is that boys are better at science and technology, and girls aren’t interested in that stuff. But in reality, many girls and women are very interested and talented in these fields. There are fewer women in these fields because they’re often discouraged from exploring these interests. Another example: some people believe that being interested in fashion or costumes is a “girl” thing. But many boys and men are interested in exploring style, too, and that doesn’t mean they’re not boys. It doesn’t mean they’re gay, either.
Lots of people know that gender stereotypes are harmful for women. The false idea that women aren’t as smart or strong as men has held back women for centuries. But gender stereotypes are harmful for men as well. They ask men to ignore and repress emotions in order to appear “strong.” They encourage men to be aggressive and powerful which can lead to unhealthy relationships. These expectations are unfair and painful.
Here’s how you can encourage your preteen to embrace and explore their true interests and fight harmful gender stereotypes:
Avoid pushing your preteen into gender stereotypes. Allow them the freedom to choose their own interests, hobbies, or areas of study, even if they don’t seem to go along with your preteen’s gender.
Be careful of double standards. If your preteen has a sibling of another gender, give them the same rules and hold them to the same expectations. For example, don’t expect your male children to be better at math and science than your female children. Don’t tolerate rough-housing with your sons if you don’t tolerate it with your daughters. If you expect politeness, sweetness, or helpfulness from your daughters, expect that from your sons as well.
Talk with your preteen about their feelings — even your sons. Crying is okay, too.
Don’t use phrases like “be a man,” “man up,” or “act like a lady.” Use the words you really mean — like brave, mature, or polite.
Point out gender stereotypes in TV, movies, magazines, and books. Have conversations with your preteen about what they think about these stereotypes, and how they can be harmful to everyone.
Encourage them to make friends with people based on the things they have in common, and not their gender. It’s okay if your daughter hangs out with boys, or your son hangs out with girls.
How do I talk about sexual orientation?
Sexual orientation is all about who you’re attracted to. And the middle school years are when these feelings often start. It’s during these years that many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people start to understand their sexual orientation. Middle schoolers may also have lots of questions about sexual orientation. Learn all about sexual orientation so you can answer their questions with confidence.
Be mindful about how you talk about your kid’s sexual orientation or potential future relationships. For example, don’t just assume that your kid is straight — they might be, but they also might not be. You also don’t want to send the message that being straight is “normal” and being LGBQ isn’t.
If you and your preteen have never talked about sexual orientation, look for chances to let them know that you think people of all sexual orientations deserve respect. You can talk with them about LGBQ friends or family, or even characters on TV or celebrities as a way to say that you respect people of all sexual orientations. And don’t forget to ask your preteen what they think.
If you yourself are lesbian, gay, bi, or queer, talking about your own coming out process can help your teen feel close to you, and may help them feel like they’re not alone if they’re questioning.
Talking about respecting lesbian, gay, bi, and queer people won’t change your preteen’s sexual orientation. There’s no way to change a person’s sexual orientation. Showing your respect for the LGBTQ community can help your teen feel comfortable if they’re trying to figure out their sexual orientation, or trying to decide whether to come out to you. And if your preteen isn’t LGBTQ, it sets a good example about respecting people who are different from you.
If your preteen tells you that they’re lesbian, gay, bi, queer, or questioning, you may be worried about what to do next. The important thing to remember is that LGBQ people who have support and love at home are happier and healthier than those who face rejection at home.
Here are some ways to be a supportive parent to your LGBQ preteen:
Tell them you love them. And that you believe them, respect them, and are happy they trusted you enough to come out to you.
Use the same word your teen uses to describe their sexual orientation. Make note of the word your teen uses to describe their orientation and use only that word. And if your teen doesn’t want to use a label to describe their orientation — even if they’re in a same-gender relationship — that’s okay, too.
If you suspect your preteen is LGBQ, don’t pressure them to admit it. Some people don’t question their sexual orientation until later in life. Others figure out their sexual orientation while they’re young but don’t feel ready to come out for many years — and that’s okay.
Don’t assume it’s just a phase — but be aware that sexual orientation can be fluid for some people, and labels sometimes change. No matter what, the important part is that you accept and believe what your preteen says about their own sexual orientation.
Do respect your preteen's wishes about who they want to come out to. Some people choose to come out to everyone in their lives and some prefer to tell only a few people. It's up to them to decide. Encouraging your preteen to hide their sexual orientation sends a message that you think there’s something wrong with them. Outing them to someone without their permission can make them trust you less. Do your best to support your preteen in their choices about being out.
Do help them figure out how to come out to people. Discuss different ways they might come out to different people, and how they’d handle things if it doesn’t go very well. This is a skill your preteen will need to have throughout life, so helping them now will show you love them and are there for them. Role playing these coming out conversations with your preteen can help them better prepare for different possible reactions.
There are things you can do to help your preteen feel more accepted outside your home, too. Check out how to create a safe space for your LGBTQ preteen.
How do I talk about gender identity?
Gender identity is the gender you feel inside and how you show your gender through your looks and behavior. It’s a feeling that begins early in life, long before your kid gets to middle school. It’s important to keep talking about gender roles and stereotypes through middle school, too.
Learning all about sex and gender can help you answer questions your preteen may have about transgender and gender nonconforming people.
Let your preteen know that you respect people no matter what gender identity they have. Learn about the right words to use when talking about transgender and gender nonconforming people.
Transphobia is the fear and hatred of transgender and gender nonconforming people. It’s the belief that transgender and gender nonconforming people are delusional, doing something against nature, or trying to trick people. Transphobia is extremely dangerous. Transgender and gender nonconforming people — especially people of color — often face discrimination and violence.
You can play an important role in preventing discrimination and violence. Talk with your preteen about how it’s important to respect the identities of transgender and gender nonconforming people. Let them know that it’s never okay to bully someone because of how they express their gender. You can even teach them how to help stop bullying.
You can help your preteen grow into an adult who stands up for what’s right. Respecting people of all genders — including people who are transgender or gender nonconforming — makes the world a safer place for everyone.
While we don’t know for sure how many people are transgender, recent research shows that about 1% of people in the U.S. identify as transgender, more than 1.5 million people. If your preteen is transgender or gender nonconforming, they really need your love and support. Having a supportive family makes them more likely to live safer, happier lives.
Here are some basic dos and don’ts when it comes to supporting your trans or gender nonconforming preteen:
Do tell your transgender or gender nonconforming preteen that you love them. They need to hear this from you and know that you see who they are and love them for who they are.
Do use the gender pronouns and name your preteen wants. Changing your name and pronouns (like from “he” to “she”) to match your gender identity is a common part of coming out. “He/him/his/himself” and “she/her/hers/herself” are not the only gender pronouns around, either. Many gender nonconforming people use “they/them/theirs/theirself,” “ze/zir/zirs/zirself,” or others.
Get to know trans-related terms and language.
Don’t use words like transgendered, transvestite, tranny, or he-she — they’re outdated and can be hurtful. Ask family members, friends, and teachers to not use these words either.
Don’t assume it’s just a phase. Middle school isn’t too young to know your gender identity. Most actually start realizing this when they’re toddlers.
Don’t act like it’s a mental health condition. Trans and gender nonconforming folks aren’t delusional and don’t need mental health counseling. However, they may suffer from mental health conditions like depression and anxiety as a result of not being accepted, believed, or because of bullying they may experience.
Do respect your preteen's wishes about who they want to come out to. Some people choose to come out to everyone in their lives and some prefer to tell only a few people. It's up to your preteen to decide. Encouraging your preteen to hide their gender identity sends a message that you don't approve of them. Do your best to support them in their choices about being out.
Do help them figure out how to come out to people. Discuss different ways they might come out to people, and how they might handle things if it doesn’t go well. This is a skill your teen will need to have throughout life, so helping them now will show you love them and are there for them. Take turns role playing having coming out conversations, switching off being your child and the person they’re coming out to. Practicing having these conversations can make your preteen much more prepared to deal with different reactions.
Don’t accuse your preteen of being “over sensitive.” Transgender and gender nonconforming people have the right to express when something someone says is hurtful, and it’s a good thing when young people stand up for themselves.
Do talk with your preteen about their health care options, like puberty blockers.
There are things you can do to help your preteen feel more accepted outside your home, too. Check out how to create a safe space for your LGBTQ preteen.
How do I create a safe space for my LGBTQ preteen?
A safe space is a place where your LGBTQ preteen can be themselves without feeling threatened for who they are. That means no tolerance of homophobic or transphobic bullying, harassment, or violence. It’s a place where the people around them — especially the people in charge — agree that negative behavior and attitudes toward LGBTQ people is unacceptable.
Home needs to be a safe space for your preteen to grow, explore their interests, and work towards their hopes and dreams — no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity is. To do this for your LGBTQ kid, you can:
Ask them what they need from you to feel supported.
Look for signs of depression or anxiety, and get help from a therapist or counselor if you think they’re struggling.
Ask them about their friends and welcome their LGBTQ friends into your home.
Ask them about their crushes, how they’re handling them, and definitely ask about any relationships they’re in.
Make it known that homophobic or transphobic speech — including jokes — isn’t acceptable.
Let your preteen read books and watch TV shows and movies with LGBTQ characters, and let them explore online LGBTQ communities. (But be sure to talk about how to stay safe online.)
Let them wear the clothes they want to wear.
Doing well in school is hard when you’re worried about being hurt or bullied, or when you don’t feel respected by your teachers, coaches, and mentors. When it comes to making school a safe space for your preteen, you can actually do a lot.
Ask your preteen about their experiences at school — whether they feel safe, if they’re ever bullied or harassed, if they know other LGBTQ students, and if the school has any LGBTQ student groups.
Talk with PTA and school administrators about the school’s policies on anti-LGBTQ bullying. If the school doesn’t have good policies, these organizations can help:
As your preteen gets older and starts going places without you, you may find that there are places that aren’t safe for your preteen if they’re out, or dress in nonconforming ways. Making rules about where they can go and what they can wear isn’t the solution, because it can just reinforce that it’s their fault and something is wrong with them. Keep an open dialogue with your preteen about their safety so you can help them navigate those spaces and figure out what’s best for them. Telling them “I want you to be able to express yourself how you’re most comfortable, but I want us to figure out together how you can do that safely,” will show them that you love and respect them and that you’re there to help figure out challenges with them.
Check out these other resources for more support on parenting an LGBTQ kid:
National Center for Transgender Equality