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. For example, a person may be:
- Heterosexual—attracted only or almost only to the other binary (male/female) gender.
- Gay—attracted only or almost only to those of the same gender.
- Bisexual—attracted both to people of their own binary gender and to those of the other binary gender.
- Pansexual—attracted to those of any gender.
- Asexual—not sexually attracted to any gender. This is different from deciding not to have sex with anyone (abstinence or celibacy).
Many people first become aware of their sexual orientation during the preteen and teen years.
During the teen years, same-sex crushes and sexual experiments are common. These early experiences do not always mean that a teen will be gay, lesbian, or bisexual as an adult.
For some teens, same-sex attractions do not fade. They grow stronger.
Gender identity is your inner sense of being male, female, both, neither, or some other gender. For transgender people, their gender identity does not match the sex that they were assigned at birth. Sometimes gender identity is outside the two most common categories of male or female. People who feel this way may use the term "nonbinary."
Children form their gender identity early. Most children believe firmly by the age of 3 that they are either a girl or a boy.
The feeling that something is different may begin early in life. Many transgender adults remember feeling a difference between their bodies and what they felt inside at a young age. Others did not feel this way until later in life.
Love and support are key
Many parents have a hard time accepting that their child is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Even if you are struggling, remember that it's important to show unconditional love to your child.
Teens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender sometimes don't reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity for a long time. They may be afraid of what their friends, family, and others will say and do. They can feel relief when they come out to their family and friends and find love, support, and acceptance.
Your teen can be emotionally healthy and happy regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. When teens have problems, it usually isn't because of their orientation or gender identity. It's usually because of a lack of support from the people they love or because they have been ridiculed, rejected, or harassed. Young people who are gay, bisexual, or transgender are at risk for:
- Being shamed by society (social stigma).
- Being shut out or excluded by peers or family members.
If you or other family members are having a hard time accepting your child's sexual orientation or gender identity, organizations such as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) may be helpful. You can find a list of other useful groups on their website at www.pflag.org.
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 A, et al. (2014). Adolescence. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 117–157. 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.
Current as of: January 22, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Elizabeth T. Russo MD - Internal Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine