Talking with your teen about gender

When your teen tells you you’re “cisgender”: Talking with your teen about gender when they know more terminology than you do

Today’s teens are talking about gender a lot. This is a good thing!

Young people are choosing to share their gender identity with others. This despite the stigma and oppression that continues to breed profound suffering among transgender and nonbinary youth. And cisgender teens (teens whose gender identity is consistent with the sex they were assigned at birth) are exploring gender, too. Teens are reflecting on how prescribed gender roles are influencing themselves and the world around them, and they are deciding what they accept about the status quo and what they would like to change.

You started it.

As their parents, you deserve significant credit for these conversations. You have been challenging gender role stereotypes for your teens’ entire lives. You dressed your babies in green and yellow. You gave your toddling daughters toy trucks. You told your kindergarten sons that crying is healthy. In cases when your children told you that their gender was different from their body, an unprecedented number of you chose to listen, to believe, and to respond accordingly.

(If you are raising a trans or nonbinary teen and haven’t already checked out: The Transgender Teen, The Transgender Child, The Gender Creative Child, and The Conscious Parent’s Guide to Gender Identity, these texts may be useful resources for your family as you navigate family and social relationships, mental and physical healthcare, and systemic advocacy.)

Cisgender parents raising cisgender teens

Some parents, particularly those who are raising trans or non binary teens, or who identify as trans or non-binary themselves, are already deep in discussion about gender with their teens. The majority of parents, however, are cisgender, and they are raising cisgender teens. I frequently encounter these parents in my office. Many share a common frustration: they find their teens’ passionate conversations about gender inaccessible. I commonly hear things like, “I have been trying to teach my kid about gender freedom for their whole life. Why do I now feel so ill-equipped to talk with them about this?”

If you are trying to determine whether and how to enter into conversations about gender with your teens, here are some suggestions to help connect with your teen on this important issue.

1. Break the language barrier: learn the lingo

Teens are fluently, seemingly even deliberately, using language that parents have never heard before. They are presenting parents with “facts” that fundamentally challenge what you thought you knew to be true about gender. This can feel intimidating, and even insulting.

Fortunately, these situations are not unlike so many new ideas your kids bring home. To effectively respond, parents need “only” find the time and resources to become informed. (Fear not–links to resources follow in the next paragraph!)

Start by teaching yourself about the differences among gender identity, sex assigned at birth, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Gender Spectrum presents a succinct written explanation of these constructs. Sam Killerman’s Genderbread Person is a useful visual model. He also offers an accessible, evolving list of definitions for many of the newer terms we are hearing to describe gender identity and gender expression.

And before you work any harder to track down additional resources, try asking your teen about the sources of their new knowledge, then follow in their footsteps. How did they learn what “genderfluid” means? Where were they taught that their gender identity is independent of their sex assigned at birth? Their answers to these questions may surprise you. An increasingly common answer is, “Health class.” Reach out to your teen’s school and request access to the educational materials they are using.

2. A question of magnitude: Understand why gender is such a big deal to your teen

Many parents find their teens’ conversations about gender to be strangely frequent, and just so intense. Some parents choose not to raise the issue of gender at all because they don’t want to exacerbate what already feels like a hyper-focus on the topic. Yet, when parents avoid talking about “hot” topics with teens, teens often simply take these conversations elsewhere. They will keep talking about gender with whatever audience they find. If that audience is not you, then your insights and values may not enter the conversation.

Your participation can also have a “cooling” effect on a hot topic. Let’s face it, parental involvement can be a real turn-off. As soon as parents demonstrate comfort talking about an issue, the issue immediately becomes less “sexy.” This impact can be healthful for your teen. A modest dampening of enthusiasm could soothe their pace. This could give them a bit more room to explore gender in a balanced manner, without the popular cultural pressure to be completely immersed in the issue.

Importantly, choosing to engage in these conversations with the primary goal of “turning down the heat” on the issue of gender is missing the point. I propose that teens’ tenacity in pursuing this topic actually isn’t overblown. Hear me out. First, we know that the extremity of teens’ interest does not just manifest when they are talking about gender. Whatever the issue, when healthy teens engage, they engage 120%. This vitality is normal, and it is one of the hallmarks of adolescence. For many parents this is a major part of why spending time with their teen leads them to feel at once so alive and so very, very exhausted.

Second, what if, [deep breath], your teens are actually “right?” What if the new conversation about gender actually is one of the most important cultural changes, as our teens might say, “you know, like, ever”? A whirlwind review of Western history supports this view.

In the 5,000-ish years of recorded human history, amidst all the conflict and cultural diversity, every colonizing civilization seemed to agree on a few basic principle.

1. Men rule over women and children.
2. Families are made through marriages of men to women.
3. There are a total of two genders/sexes.
4. Gender and sex are one and the same.

The last hundred years is a tiny speck on a 5,000-year timeline, but in this century we have seen each of these four ancient “truths” upended by cultural transformations. These changes are driven often, but not always, by the energy of a younger generation. In this way, you are actually closer to your teens in this work than you might realize. Your generation loosened family structure expectations and gender role expectations for men and women. Your children are continuing your work, moving from expanding gender roles, to really exploding them. Both generations are contributing to a very new cultural transformation. It could be a rich point of connection to recognize we are all at the cutting edge, destabilizing the oldest and most universally known social order, one generational effort at a time, and it is a big deal.

As always, do some identity exploration of your own

Teens are captivated by the gender identity and sexual identity revolution that is happening around them. They want to talk about both “the issues” and themselves. For parents to enter these conversations in a genuine way, you must also be prepared to do both.

Getting up to speed on the national dialogue is essential foundational work. The next step is equally important: examine how this conversation applies to you. While it might sound daunting, remember that no one is at the beginning of their gender journey. You have already acquired a lifetime of insight about gender! It’s just that because gender is such a powerful organizing principle, its ubiquity can also make it invisible. Much of the work for parents is around first noticing, then articulating, the innumerable ways that gender has shaped your experiences and worldview.

It could be helpful to try both a physical and ideological “gender scavenger hunt.” Start by simply looking around. How have your gender identity or prescribed gender roles shaped your surroundings? From your wardrobe, to your posture, to the trappings of the device on which you are reading this blog, where do you see the influence of your gender identity, or prescribed gender roles? You will find that gender is everywhere (even permeating the cell phone case market!). An “ideological gender scavenger hunt” is about asking yourself “How have prescribed gender roles and my gender identity shaped _____?” In that blank, keep on listing the roles, responsibilities, beliefs, and values that matter most to you. The results of this exercise may or may not surprise you. But they will surely illuminate how gender has shaped your experiences.

Go for it!

Rewarding conversations with your teen about gender are possible. Try these suggestions, and talk to other parents about what is working for them! I am always eager to hear what’s working, so please share your ideas with me via email at

Devon Voake, MS, LCMHC works with families, children, adolescents, and young adults at our Upper Valley location. She specializes in supporting teens and young adults around the intersection of identity development and mental health. Devon has particular expertise in issues related to gender identity development, sexual identity development, and racial identity development.

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