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Gender Exploration in Early Adolescents: Guidance for Students, Parents, and Families

Julia Lehr, MSSW, LCSW, AMFT | Clinical Therapist | Early Adolescent Girls

Gender is an emerging topic on many of our minds these days. Students are talking about it, parents are learning about it, and clinicians are navigating it. It is healthy for developing teens to explore themselves as they learn more about the world around them, however, this exploration can also leave some parents asking questions and feeling unsure of how to respond. Therefore, it is important to increase awareness and education around this topic so we may all create deeper relationships with ourselves and others.  

What is Gender?

So, what is gender, really? Let’s identify a few key terms. 

Gender identity — a person’s deeply-felt, inherent sense of being male, female, a blend of both, or neither. These identities may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth. Since gender identity is internal, a person’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.  

Gender expression — the external appearance of a person’s gender identity usually expressed through behavior, clothing, body characteristics, or voice.  Expressions of gender may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine. 

Sexual orientation — a person’s inherent emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to other people. This includes asexuality, which refers to a complete or partial lack of attraction to others. A person’s sexual orientation is independent of their gender identity.  

For many cultures around the world, gender and sexuality inform how we organize ourselves within our families, partnerships, friendships, and professional lives. Within the United States, the predominate culture has operated under a widely cisgender perspective. Cisgender is defined as a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they have been assigned at birth. Emerging generations have developed increased interest in understanding themselves through the lens of gender, and the shifting landscape of gender identity can at times feel overwhelming, especially for parents. For some young people, it is now common to explore gender as part of the journey to self-discovery.   

Developmentally, early adolescents are at a stage where they are going through a process of individualization. They are forming their identities and figuring out how they relate to the world. Craving a sense of self that feels right, it’s not uncommon for some pre-teens to question their identity or become attached to a gender expression before they have an in-depth understanding of who they are. Therefore, it is important to support your child in understanding themselves, finding assertive ways to communicate and articulate their experiences, and then share their perspectives on how to describe their gender expression.  

It is the role of the therapist at Open Sky to really understand each individual student and get to the heart of what they are presenting. Therapists have a keen ear and harnessed skills to navigate the tricky territory that can present through the assessment process. Issues related to gender expression are included in this as students may have a cultivated sense of protection and attachment. In a truly supportive environment and therapeutic container, students are able to understand themselves better and challenge their own ways of thinking and relating to others. 

At times, gender exploration can present as a therapeutic distraction as when suffering, students might grasp onto qualities in an attempt to feel grounded and seek a sense of control. Through a therapeutic partnership, it is possible to assess if a student is attaching themselves to a specific gender out of fear or authenticity. Not only is it important to identify the role gender identity plays in a student’s treatment, it is also important to find interventions to support them in creating a truly grounded sense of self and therefore a higher form of health. We must be discerning clinicians and reach beyond solely the techniques of reflection and validation to find more rooted and concrete change within an individual’s mental health. 

Guidance for Students

I strive to create a supportive space where my students can explore different aspects of themselves free from judgement. My goal is to walk alongside them and encourage conversation as they get to know themselves better. I support students as they ask questions and search for meaning. I utilize assignments such as prompting students to create definitions of femininity and masculinity, reflect on how the greater normative culture would define these concepts, and consider their own relationship to them.  

At a very early age, kids absorb the messages society communicates about what gender roles “should” look like within sexuality, relationships, families, and professional environments. If students don’t align with these stereotypical gender roles, they might feel depressed and disconnected from who they are understanding themselves to be. I also work with students to figure out how to bring their parents into the conversation, as family members are a vital part of the student’s world and also need to understand their child.

Guidance for Parents

I work with many parents who often at some point in this process struggle to understand their child’s interest and representation of gender. They might feel that their child will “grow out of” gender exploration or that “this is just a phase.” For our students, however, gender exploration isn’t a phase but an avenue to understand themselves in deeper ways. At times a student may be attached to a label related to gender expression and miss the journey of self- discovery and understanding. It is important for students to really understand themselves and feel grounded in expression. As people develop and grow, some attachment may change.    

The topic of gender can be complex, especially when working across generational divides. Maybe parents didn’t grow up in a community where gender and sexuality were considered through a critical lens. Maybe it wasn’t even a question they were invited to ask. There can also be a huge sense of pressure when talking about gender. Parents might fear getting something wrong or accidentally saying something offensive, which can restrict the conversation and insert even more anxiety into it. I make sure parents know that I understand how uncomfortable this can be for them while also emphasizing that it is a window into connection with their child. Talking about gender can help parents learn more about their children as well as create the foundation for discussing complex and formative topics.  

As children develop from early adolescence to adolescence and then to adulthood, the goal is for them to be able to come to their parents for support, safety, and guidance. If parents shut down the conversation around gender, their child is less likely to come to them when they need a mentor to help them navigate the world. The topic of gender can lead to discussing other forms of identity, such as religion, politics, and culture. Experience in navigating and discussing identity creates the opportunity to deepen the parent-child relationship. It also provides an environment for children to come to their parents when handling difficult topics in the future, such as romantic relationships, challenges with school or jobs, as well as risky situations that often present themselves during high school. 

Guidance for Families

Fortunately, children and parents don’t have to figure this all out on their own. Open Sky supports families in developing a deeper understanding of one another, communicating more effectively, and moving forward with greater connection and confidence. Having meaningful conversations that challenge perspectives helps both children and their parents develop critical thinking skills as well as a relationship that feels comfortable and supportive, even if they don’t agree on everything.  

Key Takeaways

  • Gender is an expression of oneself and an opportunity to create deeper relationships with our perspectives and others.  
  • Gender exploration can sometimes feel uncomfortable because it challenges our mindsets, however, it can also create space for a more grounded understanding and sense of freedom.
  • At Open Sky we assess the role gender identity plays in a student’s treatment and how we can support them moving forward. 
  • For both parents and students, gender exploration is an invitation to learn more about each other and how to make meaning of the world. 

January 31st, 2023

Julia Lehr, MSSW, LCSW, AMFT | Clinical Therapist | Early Adolescent Girls