If your child identifies — or you suspect they might identify — as non-binary, you may find yourself trying to, first, understand exactly what that means and, second, to support them in the ways they need without pushing them or becoming overbearing.
First, some basics
Before we start talking about supporting your non-binary child, it might be helpful to understand that there isn’t one hard and fast definition of the term — identifying as non-binary can mean different things to different people. So to start, if your child identifies as non-binary, psychologist Dr. Theo Burnes says it’s important to understand what that means specifically for them.
“Often what we think of when we think about non-binary is individuals who may not necessarily fit into traditional, binary labels of male or female,” says Burnes, who works with clients at the Los Angeles Gender Centre.
The term can be used to describe anyone who doesn’t feel they fall into the categories of either male or female, including — but not limited to — people who identify as gender fluid, agender (without gender), or a third gender.
And this is where many parents get tripped up
When I asked Burnes where he sees, in his work with non-binary youth and their families, parents most often stumble as they try to support their kids, he says it is right here, at the very defining of the gender.
“Non-binary youth may experience a lot of individuals who don’t validate their identity and don’t normalise it,” Burnes says. “They may tell their children that it’s ‘a phase,’ or that maybe [identifying as] non-binary is a step on the way to being transgender.”
The insistence by some parents that their child “pick a gender” — for the comfort and ease of others — can be invalidating for kids and can negatively affect their mental health.
Follow their lead
Maybe you suspect that your child is grappling with their gender identity but they haven’t actually started a dialogue with you about this yet. There are plenty of ways you can signal your nonverbal support. Parents can introduce books, TV or films with characters who identify as LGBTQ+ and comment in a way that is affirming of all sexual and gender identities. Or Burnes says you can use events happening in the news as a way to talk to your kids about your own values related to gender.
If you still see that they’re struggling, you can ask them if everything is ok and tell them you love them and they can talk to you about anything — just don’t push it too far.
“Kids will let us know when they want us to talk to them,” Burnes says. “What parents don’t want to do is push an issue that a kid’s not ready [to discuss] or has not fully formed yet.”
And once they do talk to you, follow their lead about how much they may or may not want to disclose with others, including extended family, friends or their school community. Some kids will want others to know; some may not feel safe disclosing this outside of the home.
“Depending on the kid’s cultural orientation, their racial background or their school community, coming out might not be safe and it might not necessarily be the best thing in that moment,” Burnes says. “So what I tell parents is, ‘Don’t push your kid or drag your kid out of a closet that they don’t want to come out of yet.’”
On the other hand, if they do want to come out, say, at school, parents can be helpful in facilitating meetings with school administrators or teachers. And you may first want to consult with a local therapist or gender specialist who often can provide specific scripts you can use when talking with school leaders.
It’s important to ask the child how you can support them and then follow through on that support — and it’s important to be open and supportive without being overbearing and making it a more prominent issue or discussion than they want it to be.
Sarah Hosseini writes for the Washington Post that the onus on educating yourself about non-binary identity falls on you — not on your child:
Since the onset of the pandemic, many youth and parents support groups are operating online. Joining LGBTQ aligned Facebook groups will allow you to connect with other parents going through the same thing and share information. Books and podcasts are great options, too.
[a.t. ] Furuya, [a youth program senior manager with GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network] says parents need to take initiative and research on their own first, rather than putting the labour on their child.
“I have to do anti-racist work. So I’m not just going to go to someone in my organisation or in my community and say, ‘Hey I don’t want to say something racist, how can I do that?’ Instead I’m going to do my own homework, watch my own videos, listen to people as they’re speaking, and listen to speeches that have already been given,” Furuya says. The same is true for people who are LGBTQ. Don’t put the weight of your education on the person you’re trying to support.
Burnes also recommends the books The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals and The Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens, which he says include some helpful information about non-binary identities.
Use the correct pronouns
If your child wants you to use they/them pronouns to refer to them instead of she/her or he/him, use the correct pronouns. It’s not grammatically incorrect, and although it may take some getting used to, their pronouns are an important part of their identity.
“The pronoun piece, I think, is so important for kids,” Burnes says. “What I tell parents is, ‘The first thing you want to do is just try — and even if you mess up, keep trying.’ Kids notice when parents try with pronouns.”