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How to Talk to Your Kids About Gender Identity & Sexual Orientation

How to Talk to Your Kids About Gender Identity & Sexual Orientation

Experts share 6 tips for having these important conversations about gender and sexual identity with your children.

Many parents are overwhelmed by the idea of talking to their kids about gender and sexual identity. And that’s understandable, says Jeffrey Cohen, Psy.D., a psychologist at ColumbiaDoctors and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “We can all struggle in talking about gender identity or expression, as well as sexual orientation and identity,” he says. But don’t let this discomfort hold you back from having frank and ongoing discussions about these issues with your children. 

One reason for prioritizing these chats? You can’t count on schools to provide this information to students. For instance, while sexual health education is required in New York City schools, sex ed is not. 

“When children are not receiving comprehensive sexuality education, it has detrimental impacts regardless of the identities those children hold,” explains Ryan Mateo Sharnbroich, M.Ed., M.P.H., a sexuality education consultant. Kids miss out on learning about what healthy relationships and intimacy look like, as well as information about safe sex practices and consent.  

6 Tips for Talking to Kids About Gender and Sexual Identity

“If we want our kids to have healthy, happy, pleasurable lives, we’ve got to take on that responsibility and fill in those gaps,” Mateo Sharnbroich adds. This includes talking about sex—and also about sexual and gender identity. 

Here’s what you need to know to get started. 

Do your homework. 

An understanding of basic concepts is helpful for parents, according to Dr. Cohen, but it’s also reasonable to feel uncertain about what terms to use. “Certainly, the language has shifted a lot over time,” he says. 

You’ll want to be familiar with all the words that make up the acronym LGBTQ: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (or, sometimes, questioning). Plus, know the difference between: 

  • Sex: This is assigned by doctors at birth based on genitalia. 
  • Gender expression or gender presentation: This is how someone expresses their gender (think: hairstyle and clothing, and also how a person behaves). 
  • Gender identity: This refers to a person’s internal understanding of gender—separate from a person’s sex assigned at birth, Dr. Cohen says. “There are many, many ways to experience your gender that transcend the binary [of man/woman].” 
  • Sexuality: This explains who a person is attracted to. 

Think of these basics as a foundation that’ll help you feel more informed and comfortable having these conversations, Dr. Cohen adds. 

It’s okay not to have all the answers. 

“Your responsibility isn’t to be an encyclopedia and regurgitate facts for your kids,” Mateo Sharnbroich says. Instead, you want to make two things clear to children: You’re aware of gender and sexual diversity; you love and accept people however they identify or express themselves. “That value system matters more than being able to know and teach all the facts,” he says. 

Don’t put off conversations until adolescence. 

When it comes to talking about sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, Mateo Sharnbroich says there’s never a bad time to start. By age 3, most children know their gender, he notes. And while understanding sexuality comes later, that doesn’t mean you should hold off on discussing these topics. “Kids at really young ages can understand a diversity of family structures,” he says. 

Look for natural conversation openings. 

Your child’s questions and observations will often provide an opportunity to talk about gender and sexuality. For example, your preschooler may point out that a nuclear family is different from yours. Older kids may talk about a friend whose gender identity is different than their own. Kids of all ages may make gender-based statements (i.e. “only girls like princesses”). 

Be honest and age-appropriate in your responses. Give preschoolers simple, concrete responses, and encourage older kids to share their own thoughts and perspective. And note that with teens it may help to ask questions. Even if they don’t respond right away, they’ll understand that you’re open to talking.

If teaching moments and questions don’t occur on their own, encourage them through culture. Watching TV or reading age-appropriate LGBTQ+ books together can start conversations and give parents an opportunity to share their values. “There’s books and TV shows for children of all ages that show a diverse representation of sexual identities,” Mateo Sharnbroich says. Consider them your entry point. 

Consider conversations ongoing. 

Release the notion of a one-time, “big” talk on all things gender and sexual identity. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be sitting down with your 5-year-old and talking about what all types of sexuality exist,” Mateo Sharnbroich says. Instead, think of it as an ongoing discussion you’re having, that may evolve and deepen with your child’s age. This may help decrease your sense of urgency or stress. 

If your child asks a question, and you’re not sure how to respond, you can look up the answer together, or tell your child you’ll get back to them after you do some research, Mateo Sharnbroich says. No need to make something up. 

Show unconditional love and encourage acceptance.

“Make it really clear that your value system aligns with an inclusive, affirming approach,” Mateo Sharnbroich says. In other words: Live your values, be accepting, call out hateful language, avoid gendered phrases and assumptions, and show that your love for your child is big and unconditional.  

RELATED: How to Celebrate and Learn About Pride All Year Long

Talking to Kids Who Have Come Out 

For kids, it can be uncomfortable being the center of the conversation, Mateo Sharnbroich notes. Asking open-ended questions and talking positively about diversity show that you’re accepting, without turning an uncomfortable spotlight on your child as they share their sexual orientation or gender identity, he says. 

Dr. Cohen recommends some additional supportive behaviors

  • Express your love: Coming out can be scary for kids (yes, still) so express love, affection, and support.
  • Use appropriate language and pronouns: Respect and affirm your child’s name and pronouns. Similarly, allow them to wear clothing that supports their gender identity. 
  • Be welcoming: Invite your child’s LGBTQ+ friends to come to your house—make it a safe and welcoming space. 
  • Participate in welcoming communities: Make sure all the organizations and institutions your child interacts with—school, doctors, camp, sports, religious organizations, and so on—welcome both your child specifically and LGBTQ+ people generally, as well as people with a variety of gender identities. 
  • Build connections: Help your child meet other people in the LGBTQ+ community

Above all, speak about your child’s identity or orientation openly. “Saying nothing can be hurtful,” Dr. Cohen says. Defend them against insults and negativity from others. Counteract lingering myths by believing that your child can and will be happy as an LGBTQ+ adult. And “explicitly tell them that they will have a good life,” he advises. 

Helpful Resources for Parents to Talk to Kids About Gender Identity

Looking to learn more? There are plenty of parent-focused resources available. 

Planned Parenthood 

You’ll find age-by-age tips for talking about sex and sexuality as well as sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Trevor Project

Find an array of resources about how to show support, plus answers to FAQs. 

Gender Unicorn

The unicorn illustration graphic at this site, which is available in many languages, can help kids discuss their gender identity, gender expression, along with who they are physically and emotionally attracted to. 

American Sexual Health Association 

A rich source of science-based facts about sex and sexuality, with a helpful parent-focused page. ASHA is also behind the website, which provides information to teens and young adults.  

Talk with Your Kids

The site’s Timeline Guide offers tips for how parents and caretakers can talk to kids about sex, sexuality, and gender from birth onward.

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Author: Madeleine Burry is a freelance writer and editor who has held staff positions at, Scholastic, and Burry lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and their cat. You can follow her on Twitter @lovelanewest. See More

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