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Parenting Your Non-Binary Child

Alex is 14, and six months ago, they told their parents that they are bisexual and non-binary. Alex came out in the greatest way, setting up a scavenger hunt for their parents, which ended in their closet (of course) where the bisexual pride flag was hanging. Alex’s parents were so happy that they felt confident enough to come out, and especially that Alex was trusting them with this vulnerable information. Alex’s parents gave them a huge hug and said “we love you no matter what.”

  

But now it’s six months later. Alex and their parents haven’t spoken about it much since. Alex feels awkward bringing it up again, but they’re really not sure who else to talk with about what they’re experiencing. They’ve asked their teachers to use they/them pronouns and some were good about it. They got a lecture from their English teacher and that didn’t feel great. But Alex wasn’t sure their parents would want to hear about that so they kept it to themself. Alex has lots of non-binary friends online but none in real life. All their schooling is online right now so their parents bug Alex a lot about spending too much time on the internet. Alex is starting to get frustrated with all of the emotions that are staying inside.

Alex loves their parents. Alex knows their parents return that love.  But Alex feels different from them, like maybe they don’t belong in their family. As days go by, Alex begins to feel like no one really understands what their life is like.  

 

Some days it feels overwhelming. Some days Alex wishes their soul felt like it belonged in this body that everyone around them treats as female. It’s hard to not be angry at their body. Some days, causing this body a little pain is the only thing that makes life feel a little better. On really bad days, Alex even considers suicide.

 

Understandably, Alex’s parents are incredibly worried and have no idea how things got to that point and where things go from here. This article is not medical or legal advice. We, the writers, are not doctors, lawyers, or therapists, nor do we play one on social media. But we do have lived life experience and we want to help.

 

First things first…

 

What is non-binary?

Being nonbinary means that you do not fit, neatly or at all, into the traditional binary of boy or girl, man or woman. Some nonbinary people feel like both man and woman, some feel like neither of the traditional genders. Some feel very strongly that they have no gender, also known as ‘agender’ or ‘genderless’. Nonbinary is what we refer to as an ‘umbrella’ term, meaning that it encompasses many different things under its heading. In the same way that we use ‘bird’ to mean feathered creatures, we also understand that ‘bird’ doesn’t tell us exactly what type it is, and that there are many different kinds.

 

Is this a new trend?

 

No. Nonbinary or alternative gender identities have existed throughout history in many, many different cultures. This modern take is fairly unique, however, in that historically identities were often understood within a spiritual framework, whereas today our discussion around gender identity is notably devoid of spirituality, and discussed solely as part of the LGBTQ+ community. In some indigenous cultures, their version of transgender or nonbinary people were frequently revered as being wise or the embodiment of the two energies, and therefore able to offer a balanced or well-rounded view of a situation. It was not uncommon for these individuals to hold a spiritual guidance or healing role within a community.

 

Is gender identity related to sexual orientation?

 

No. Sexual orientation does not inform gender identity. It’s more of a mix and match kind of situation. A friend’s boyfriend once told me, ‘my friend came out as nonbinary, but they’re still with their girlfriend, even though they’re not a man’. To which I replied, ‘are you a man because you’re into women, or do you just happen to be a man who likes women?’ He realised that he’d been equating the two, or one as being part of the other, when actually that’s not a given at all. Sexual orientation is about who we fall in love with or are attracted to, and until we begin to understand our feelings, if we have them at all (some people never do, and that’s fine!), we really cannot predict anyone’s orientation, whether they’re transgender, nonbinary, or cisgender (when they guessed your gender correctly at birth). So gender identity is not about sex or romance; it is purely about who we are in the world of gender, regardless of anyone else.

 

Do nonbinary people transition?

 

Sometimes. To some degree. This is a really important part of some nonbinary people’s journey, whereas for others it’s completely irrelevant. There is no way to predict or control how someone will feel in regards to their body. A huge amount of dysphoria is often relieved when someone is genuinely seen as them, not as male or female. Dysphoria is thought to be a neurological difference between what is perceived, and what is felt. Therefore if someone feels very strongly that they don’t have a gender, for example, to attempt to apply one can cause very strong dysphoria. This effect over time can be extremely detrimental, therefore it’s absolutely imperative to learn to see someone as they see themself, and to put our own opinions and takes to one side. After all, we are all more than the sum of our parts.

The 3 Things Parents Need to Know

  1. Self-harm is, unfortunately, a common coping mechanism among young people, but even more so among trans and nonbinary young people. If young people are bombarded in every single environment by cisnormative beliefs, stories, and versions of life, it can drive people inward, leaving no space to expand, to breathe, to be themselves. When you are nonbinary in a heavily cisnormative world, it can become overwhelming. If not a single one of your regular environments is continuously inclusive and open, it makes any attempt at stating your needs feel like you’re breaking a mold, which is a huge amount of pressure. As adults, we absolutely must commit to building a very open and inclusive environment for our young people, so that they are not put in a position of turning inward, and potentially hurting themselves. Pronouns and correct gendering are absolutely key in this regard.
  2. Nonbinary kids are not broken by default. It’s only a society that doesn’t automatically include them that causes an issue (ref. Gender Explorers by Juno Roche). Nonbinary kids’ superpower is commonly people skills or appreciation of others. Nonbinary kids are far more likely to put the effort into getting to know an individual, or to see past superficial details and into the core of others, and to connect on a deeper level, given the chance and the right environment and connection. (Equally, they might be able to identify a bad apple at twenty paces!) Nonbinary kids are not an issue to overcome, fix, or "deal with". Nonbinary kids have just as much to offer as any other kid, and maybe even more. But like with anyone, given the right environment and equal, run-of-the-mill treatment, there’s no reason they can’t thrive like anyone else.
  3. It’s okay that you were not prepared. It’s okay that you’ll make a genuine mistake sometimes. All of us together; me, you, the kids, we’re all making a new culture together right now. One of openness, love, acceptance, and valuing these differences as we should all variations of identity. A really good rule of thumb is to ask, in each challenging situation "do I need to ask my kid what their needs are, or do I need more knowledge?"  It’s super important to empower our kids to state their needs, and it’s equally important to make sure we’re not leaning on our kids to coach us through our feelings, or to hold space for us. That is not their job. Make sure there are clear boundaries and that we as adults are taking responsibility for our needs and making sure they are met appropriately with other adults.

 

In conclusion, our recommendations are to get involved, listen to your kids, get comfortable with discomfort, and deal with any feelings or questions or doubts you’re having in an appropriate space. When your kid finally feels alive, finally feels like they can breathe, it is not the right time to tell them you feel grief. Not every parent of trans and nonbinary kids feels grief, but many do. It’s so incredibly important that we make sure that kids know it’s not their fault that expectations were placed on them that they had no way to keep. It’s probably better we don’t mention them to our kids at all.

 

This is a time that they finally get to celebrate themselves.

It’s also time for us as adults to change our culture enough that nonbinary and trans kids have the opportunity to thrive, and that starts with all of us braving this new world.

Have more questions?  Would you like to continue the discussion in person? Join us for a live conversation with the authors, Mx. Harris Hill and Elena Joy Thurston.  

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