In a world where society expects everyone to be cisgender or heterosexual, many LGBTQIA+ teens struggle with their identities. They may feel confused as to why they are different, and they may feel isolated because they are not like everyone else.
Most adolescents who identify as anything other than cisgender worry about telling family, friends, and others about who they are, fearing a lack of acceptance or worse. Being able to support LGBTQIA+ clients and help them build confidence and determine if, how, and with whom to talk about their gender identity or sexual orientation can be life-changing.
Why Some Teens Have Confusion About Identity
While many people’s gender aligns with the sex assignment given to them based on their genitalia at birth, there are those who experience an alternate gender identity or a sexual orientation that is not heterosexual. Because these very real internal experiences do not match the external expectations society places upon them based on genitalia or appearance, many children and teens are very confused about their identity.
This confusion can lead to self-esteem issues, depression, anxiety, other mental health disorders, substance abuse, or even suicide. Looking in the mirror every day and seeing one version of yourself that does not match your internal cues can be difficult to understand for anyone, but especially for young people. Feeling compelled to live up to society’s narrative for your external appearance when you are not being authentic to yourself can not only be perplexing, it can cause self-destructive behaviors as well.
Offering Support in Identifying Gender and Orientation
A person’s gender is something that comes from within, not something that is determined by physical features or genitals. Likewise, sexual orientation is based on whom a person is attracted to, not simply the opposite sex from what they were assigned at birth. Teens are often still grappling with these realities, torn between trying to fit in with the societal norms and trying to figure out what is truly authentic for them.
Your role as a mental health provider can be a sounding board for adolescents who are struggling to identify their gender or sexual orientation. This does not mean that you need to educate them about all of the possibilities or try to guess their identity or orientation; it means that you simply listen and ask them questions so that they can figure it out for themselves.
You can be a nonjudgmental adult who simply allows them to speak about their thoughts and feelings, asking them questions to help them find the answers they are looking for. This support can be invaluable, as the other stakeholders in their lives will often have some sort of bias or judgment that might harm the child’s true feelings and, ultimately, their identity.
Concerns About Talking to Family and Friends
Many teens will have concerns about talking to their parents, family, and friends about their gender or sexual orientation if it differs from cisgender or heterosexual. For many of these adolescents, their concerns are very real. Stigma and discrimination about sexual orientation and gender are still very strong, even within families. Coming out is also a very personal decision, and the timing and who knows is a unique and individual decision for each teen.
As a professional, you will want to address their concerns and discuss their safety. You need to take their concerns about safety seriously. Some teens fear the worst, but actually find their families love them and accept them for who they are. However, there are some situations where teens suffer abuse or are disowned or kicked out of their homes when they disclose this information, and in those situations, the child’s safety should be considered.
Finding the Balance Between Discrimination and Authenticity
For teens who fear discrimination from family, friends, or others when they disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity, keeping that information secret provides a different set of challenges. Not being able to be true to oneself has its own set of psychological pitfalls, so a balance needs to be found between safety from discrimination and authenticity to self.
As a provider of mental healthcare, you can help teens find this balance by helping them talk through their concerns. Finding local resources to help them should they find themselves homeless can also be very helpful. Offering them support to stand up to discrimination or knowledge about how to fight against discrimination will help strengthen them should the need arise.
Most importantly, however, having at least one adult in their life that they can trust who will listen to them and validate who they are, even if that changes, can be an anchor for them in a storm of uncertainty and difficulties. Your nonjudgmental and unwavering support of LGBTQIA+ teens can be invaluable.
Teens with gender identity and sexual orientation concerns can feel confused by a society that is very biased toward cisgender and heterosexual persons. Your support of adolescents who are struggling with their identity and how to talk about it with their family and friends can be so important for them. Helping them deal with discrimination and still be authentic to themselves can be an invaluable source of support in their lives. Sustain Recovery understands the strong link between LGBTQIA+ teens and mental health and substance use disorders. Our extended residential treatment program helps teens learn more about themselves as they work to heal. Our Irvine, California, facility helps to connect teens with support in their community so they can continue in their recovery process after treatment. To find out if our program can help your client, call us at (949) 407-9052 today.