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Your Teen's Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Topic Overview

Teens want an answer to the eternal question, "Who am I?" Part of the answer lies in their sexual self. The teen years can be a confusing time. Hormones, cultural and peer pressures, and fear of being different can cause many teens to question themselves in many areas, including their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Sexual orientation is how you are attracted romantically and sexually to other people—to the same sex, to the other sex, or to both sexes. This attraction typically starts to form in the preteen years.

Gender identity is different. It's your internal sense of whether you are male or female.

Sexual orientation

During the teen years, same-sex "crushes" are common. Some teens may experiment sexually. But these early experiences do not always mean that a teen will be gay, lesbian, or bisexual as an adult.

For some teens, though, same-sex attractions do not fade. They grow stronger.

Gender identity

For some people, their gender identity does not match their physical body. Their body is male or female, but inside they feel they are really the opposite sex. People who feel this way often refer to themselves as "transgender."

Children form their gender identity early. Most children believe firmly by the age of 3 that they are either girls or boys.

The feeling that something is different may also begin early in life. Many transgender adults remember feeling a difference between their bodies and what they felt inside at a young age, well before their teen years. Others did not feel this way until much later in life.

Love and support are key

Many parents have a hard time accepting that their child may be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Even if you are struggling with this possibility, remember the importance of showing unconditional love to your child.

Teens who realize that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender sometimes stay "in the closet" (do not reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity) for a long time because they are afraid of what their friends, family, and others will say and do. This can be very stressful and can cause depression, anxiety, and other problems.

Many teens feel relief when they come out of the closet and find love, support, and acceptance from parents, friends, and others. Unfortunately, some find that their fears come true.

Young people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender are at risk for:

  • Being shamed by society (social stigma).
  • Being shut out or excluded by peers and family members.
  • Depression.
  • Suicide.

When teens have problems related to being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, it isn't because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It's usually because of a lack of support from the people they love or because they have been or are being ridiculed, rejected, or harassed.

Your teen can be emotionally healthy and happy regardless of whether he or she is heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or transgender.

If you or other family members are having a hard time accepting a child's sexual orientation or gender identity, organizations such as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) may be helpful.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American Psychiatric Association: Mental Health
Web Address: www.healthyminds.org

American Psychological Association
Web Address: www.apa.org

American Social Health Association
Web Address: www.ashastd.org

Family Equality Council (U.S.)
Web Address: www.familyequality.org

GLBT National Help Center (U.S.)
Web Address: www.glnh.org

PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)
Web Address: www.pflag.org

References

Other Works Consulted

  • American Psychological Association (2008). Answers to Your Questions: For a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Available online: http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/orientation.aspx.
  • APA Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns (2011). Answers to Your Questions About Transgender Individuals and Gender Identity. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Available online: http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/transgender.aspx.
  • Biggs WS (2011). Medical human sexuality. In RE Rakel, DP Rakel, eds., Textbook of Family Medicine, 8th ed., pp. 1000–1012. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  • Cromer B, et al. (2011). Adolescent development. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 649–659. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  • Hillman JB, Spigarelli MG (2009). Sexuality: Its development and direction. In WB Carey et al., eds., Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, 4th ed., pp. 415–425. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Sadock VA (2009). Normal human sexuality and sexual and gender identity disorders. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 2027–2060. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Sass AE, Kaplan DW (2011). Adolescence. In WW Hay et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 20th ed., pp. 104–144. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Zucker KJ (2011). Gender identity and sexual behavior. In CD Rudolph et al., eds., Rudolph's Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 346–348. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer A. Evan Eyler, MD, MPH - Family Medicine, Psychiatry
Specialist Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Current as of June 4, 2014

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