Navigating Pronouns: Supporting Your Gender-Nonconforming Teen with Love and Acceptance

Gender non conforming teens

For parents of gender non-conforming teens, understanding and using new preferred pronouns can be an incredibly important gesture of love and acceptance. For some parents, this can be quite challenging.

Making the switch from “he” to “she” or “she” to “they” may bring up feelings of grief, confusion, or even inadequacy. We want to provide some strategies to help your brain get used to these new pronouns, hold space for the emotions you may experience during the learning process, and support your teen through any pain or anger that may arise.

Over time, these new pronouns will become easy to use and eventually become second nature, making connection easier between you and the amazing person they are growing up to be.

Have compassion for your child and yourself

This is a transitional period for both of you, and you are both navigating new territory.

For some teens, requesting new pronouns is an easy process. For others, the decision may be quite difficult. Your teen may have spent a lot of time deciding if they wanted to request new pronouns. They may have seen recent news stories that have made them fearful of being out and proud of their gender identity. They may have been internally grappling with which pronouns felt right to them or could have been struggling to find the right words to tell you how they feel.

For some parents, new pronouns may be confusing or destabilizing. You have referred to your child with the same words since they were born, and suddenly, those words are no longer to be used. Those same words you’re so used to and probably never even paid much attention to are suddenly forbidden and may even bring up anger or hurt in your child.

Additionally, pronouns like “they/them” or “zi/zir” may be completely new to many parents. It is natural to stumble over these new pronouns or have a hard time understanding new words and concepts.

“Meet people where they’re at”

At OTC, we often repeat the phrase, “Meet people where they’re at.” This phrase reminds us that we all come from different educational backgrounds, life experiences, and ways of speaking. We must meet each other where we are in our learning process without judgment and build knowledge from there. We can’t expect perfection from anyone—and that includes ourselves.

We live in a time when it can feel scary to make mistakes. Social media has turned the world into a stage and every viewer into a critic. Judgment is all around us, and the mistakes of others are broadcast live for everyone to see. But fearing mistakes only breeds the fear of trying. And what a wonderful gift you can give to your child, demonstrating your commitment to them, by being willing to go through the difficult and humbling process of learning new things.

Strategies for getting used to your teen’s new pronouns

It will undoubtedly take time and practice to adjust to this new form of expression. The key is reminding yourself why you are practicing this. Remember that making an effort is an important and loving gesture that can make a world of difference to your teenager.

Begin by having open, honest conversations with your teen about their preferred pronouns and why they are meaningful. Ask questions and then listen with an open heart and mind.

If it’s helpful, you can use this three-step process of deep listening:

  • Mirror – Reflect what they say using their own words. It can be helpful to start your response with “So I hear you saying…” or “It sounds like you’re saying…”
  • Validate -Let them know that what they’re saying makes sense to you from their perspective. This can sound like “That makes sense because…” or “I can see how you might think or feel…” If you’re having trouble understanding your child’s perspective, it’s also helpful to ask for more information, like “Can you tell me more about…” in an inviting way instead of “I don’t understand what you mean.”
  • Empathize – Convey that how they feel matters to you. And share if anything they say resonates with you. It can be so meaningful to a child in a vulnerable moment to hear that you understand their experience and want to know how they feel.

Remember that while the discomfort you might feel is temporary, the trust you build with your teen is lifelong. Even if you question whether or not this is a phase for your child, remember that listening to your child’s request will encourage them to share their feelings and experiences with you without fearing negative repercussions.

If you can show your child that they are safe to express themselves when they’d like to be referred to in a new way, they’ll understand it is also safe to switch back again if their feelings change. A precedent will be set between you, and they will trust you to hear them on other aspects of their lives over the years.

Understanding and respecting your teen’s identity

  • Practice using the pronouns: Start using their preferred pronouns privately and practice using them in your thoughts and conversations.
    Consider meeting with a friend for a bite and practice using gender-neutral pronouns. Gently correct each other until you don’t have to.
  • Correct yourself: If you make a mistake, apologize, correct yourself, and move on. Avoid making a bigger deal out of it.
  • Parental role modeling: Consistently use their preferred pronouns in front of others, including family members and friends.
  • Surround yourself with supportive resources: Seek guidance from support groups, books, or online resources that provide information on supporting transgender or gender non-conforming youth. (Odyssey Teen Camp has a Facebook support group for parents of LGBTQ teens.)
  • Advocate for your teenager’s pronouns: Encourage family members, friends, and teachers to use your teenager’s preferred pronouns and educate them on the importance of respecting their identity.
  • Offer support: Reinforce your ongoing support for your teenager by being there for them, being understanding, and creating a safe and accepting environment.
  • Be Patient: If you are really having a difficult time with pronouns, refer to your child by name whenever possible to lessen the dependency on pronouns. It’s not ideal, but it’s still a viable starting place.

Remember, using an individual’s preferred pronouns is a way to show respect and affirm their identity, and it is essential for their mental well-being and self-acceptance.

Additionally, you can educate yourself about gender identity terms and the various pronouns. You can start by familiarizing yourself with the glossary of gender terms and pronouns below.

Important gender identity terms

This glossary was assembled with the help of this NPR article as a reference.

  • Intersex: People born with physical, hormonal, or genetic variations that don’t fit typical definitions of male or female bodies. It is a natural variation in human biology.
  • Cisgender: Any person whose gender identity matches the sex they were born as. For example, if you were assigned male at birth and identify as male, you are cisgender. It’s about feeling comfortable with the gender corresponding to your assigned sex at birth.
  • Transgender: This term describes a person who has chosen a gender identity that is different from the sex assigned to them at birth. It’s about embracing and living as the gender that feels true to them.
  • Genderqueer: An umbrella term that refers to individuals who have a gender identity that doesn’t soley align with the traditional binary categories of male or female. It is a diverse term encompassing various identities and experiences, such as non-binary, genderfluid, and gender non-conforming. Genderqueer individuals may also choose to use different pronouns, such as they/them, to reflect their identity. It’s important to note that gender identity is personal and can vary greatly from person to person.
  • Nonbinary: This term is used to describe a person who doesn’t identify as male or female. They may see themselves identifying as both, neither, or somewhere in between. It’s all about rejecting the binary gender system and embracing a broader spectrum of gender identities.
  • Agender: A person who does not have a gender identity or does not identify with any gender. It’s all about feeling like gender is not a part of one’s identity or feeling neutral towards gender.
  • Gender-expansive: A term that describes individuals who go beyond traditional ideas of gender. They may identify as both masculine and feminine or as neither. It’s about breaking free from the constraints of binary gender and embracing a more fluid and diverse understanding of oneself.
  • Gender Transition: The process of aligning one’s outward appearance and identity with the gender identity that they internally feel. This can be presented through various means, such as changing names, pronouns, clothing, and possibly undergoing medical procedures or treatments.
  • Gender Dysphoria: The distress or discomfort that can occur when a person’s gender identity is not aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Sex: Male or female biological status assigned at birth dictated by external anatomy.
  • Gender: The social and cultural expectations and norms attached to being male, female, or any other gender identity. It’s not the same as your biological sex. It’s basically how you see yourself and identify your own gender.
  • Gender Identity: This is all about how you see and feel yourself. It could be male, female, or any other gender. It’s completely separate from the sex you were assigned at birth.
  • Gender Expression: How you see and feel yourself in terms of being male, female, or any other gender. Gender expression is how you present yourself to the world through your appearance and style. This is separate from the sex assigned at birth.
  • Sexual Orientation: Sexual orientation refers to what genders a person may be attracted to. This can be a very fluid experience throughout the course of one’s life.

Examples of sexual orientation include:

  • Heterosexual: Attracted to individuals of a different gender.
  • Homosexual: Attracted to individuals of the same gender.
  • Bisexual: Attracted to individuals of both the same and different genders.
  • Pansexual: Attracted to individuals regardless of their gender identity.
  • Asexual: Experiencing little to no sexual attraction towards any gender.

Understanding Common LGBTQ+ Terms and Pronouns

In the LGBTQ+ community, there are terms and pronouns that reflect diverse gender identities. Let’s explore a list of common pronouns and their meanings:

  • He/Him: These pronouns are typically used by individuals who identify as male.
  • She/Her: These pronouns are typically used by individuals who identify as female.
  • They/Them: These pronouns are gender-neutral and can be used when referring to someone whose gender identity is unknown or who prefers not to be specified.
  • Ze/Zir: These pronouns are an alternative to gendered pronouns and are used by some people who identify outside the traditional “gender binary,” which refers to the societal construct that recognizes only two genders: male and female.

Language is dynamic and evolves. Some words, once considered acceptable, are now considered offensive or outdated.

For example, using terms like “he/she” for individuals who prefer gender-neutral pronouns can be invalidating. Be open to learning and embracing new terminology as it emerges, emphasizing respect and inclusivity.

Parents navigating resistance from extended family

Sometimes, extended family members, like grandparents, may struggle to understand or accept your teen’s preferred pronouns. This can be difficult for both your teen and yourself.

In these situations, it’s important to approach conversations with empathy and education. Share your own journey of growth and learning with your family members, helping them understand why this matters to your teen’s well-being.

Provide them with educational resources, books, or articles that can open their minds and hearts. Encourage respectful dialogue and create a safe space for questions and discussions.

There will be situations where family or friends are not open and sometimes even hurtful. As a parent protecting your vulnerable teen, you may need to make difficult decisions about who you allow into your world.

Change takes time, but the love and acceptance you model may influence others to follow suit. Teens can help us grow if we allow it to happen.

Helpful Resources:

  • Chuck Bernsohn—A friend of OTC and passionate advocate for LGBTQ+ youth, Chuck facilitates training and support for parents and guardians of trans and gnc children. Meet one-on-one or in a small group of other parents to learn the skills you need to affirm your teen and gain support from other parents/guardians of gender-expansive kids.
  • The Family Acceptance Project
  • Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
  • TransYouth Family Allies

Strategies for teens who experience resistance from others about their preferred pronouns

Having something as important as preferred pronouns dismissed by loved ones can cause pain and anger for your teen. It can feel like their identities and authentic selves are being invalidated.

Encourage your teen to find healthy outlets and coping strategies to navigate these emotions. They can engage with support groups or LGBTQ+ mentors who have experienced similar challenges. Journaling, art, or mindfulness practices can help them process their feelings and build resilience.

Remind them of their worth and the importance of embracing their true selves, regardless of others’ reactions. Encourage them to express their feelings and set boundaries to protect their emotional well-being.

According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth who report having at least one affirming adult in their life were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year. Understanding and using the preferred pronouns plays a crucial role in affirming gender-nonconforming teenagers.

It may require unlearning what we were taught and embracing new ways of expression, but through education, empathy, and open dialogue, we can create a world where our teens feel seen, loved, and accepted for who they truly are.

Find out about Odyssey Teen Camp

A great place for teens to be exactly who they are in a community that celebrates diversity. 

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Odyssey Teen Camp

Odyssey Teen Camp, located in the Berkshires, is a safe summer space for teens to be themselves. Our campers experience the pure exhilaration that comes from being included, honored, and celebrated for exactly who they are. They leave OTC instilled with the confidence to reimagine their place in the world. And they will forever remain a part of the OTC family. OTC offers full summer programming for ages 13 through 18.
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Find Out About Odyssey Teen Camp

A Non-Profit Overnight Summer Camp For Teens Ages 13-18
Located in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.