Ways to support your non-binary teenager

If your teenager has told you they’re non-binary, one of your first questions might be: What does being non-binary actually mean? 

From accepting new concepts and language, to pronouns and names, to supporting gender-affirming care, there are plenty of ways to show your support for your non-binary teenager.

This can help if:

  • you think your teen might be non-binary 

  • your teen has identified as non-binary or expressed that they might be

  • you know and want to support a young person who identifies as non-binary.

Ways to support your non-binary teenager. Image of a mum and child leaning in close to each other on a couch looking at a tablet together.

What does ‘non-binary’ mean? 

At its simplest, ‘non-binary’ is a gender identity that sits outside of the male–female gender binary. With non-binary identity, those two options get replaced with a whole gender spectrum. Some non-binary people experience themselves as being between genders, embracing and rejecting parts of both. Others identify as existing outside of this system altogether. 

It can be a lot to get your head around, but a great place to start is to understand some basics about gender, sex and sexuality. It’s important to distinguish gender identity from sex assigned at birth. While one’s sex is based on physical characteristics, gender is personally and socially constructed. This means that you can’t tell someone’s gender just by looking at them, and it doesn’t tell you anything about who they are attracted to. It’s also important to know that a person’s relationship to gender may change over time.

You might also have heard the term ‘enby’, which is a common abbreviation for ‘non-binary’. (The acronym ‘NB’ already had other meanings.) Some non-binary people may use the term ‘enby’, but it comes down to personal preference. You can learn more about different LGBTQIA+ terms in this Minus18 guide.

Why is my teenager non-binary?

Non-binary and gender diverse people have always existed, but it’s only recently that we’ve developed language for a range of gender expressions and experiences. 

If your teen has come out to you as non-binary, it means they’re finding out more about themselves and have determined that they identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. There is likely no causal explanation for this – it’s just who they are and how they feel. This can sometimes be hard to understand and accept. It might even conflict with your values. But being open and approachable, and coming from a place of curiosity, can be a helpful way to support your teen as they explore their gender identity.

What does ‘gender dysphoria’ mean?  

‘Gender dysphoria’ is when the gender that someone presents to the world doesn’t fit with the gender they identify with. It can start in childhood, or during adolescence or even in adulthood, and it can come and go during this time, but for the definition to apply, the dysphoria must last for at least six months. 

Gender dysphoria can be triggered by wearing what feels like the ‘wrong’ gendered clothing or haircut, or being called or treated like a girl or a boy. It’s important to understand that gender dysphoria is different from depression and anxiety, but it can intersect with them and can cause serious feelings of distress and confusion for a young person.

Signs of gender dysphoria

The signs of gender dysphoria will be different from one person to another. Here are some common things you can keep an eye out for in your teen:

  • Their chosen gender identity doesn’t match with their genitals, or with their secondary sex characteristics such as breast size, voice and facial hair. They might share this directly with you, or you may notice changes in their appearance and behaviour.

  • They express a strong desire to be rid of their genitals or secondary sex characteristics, or to have those of another gender.

  • They express a strong desire to be, or to be treated as, another gender or to have the typical feelings and reactions of another gender.

  • They are feeling depressed, anxious or irritable.

  • There are signs of self-harm or suicidal ideation.

Gender dysphoria may also cause significant distress that affects how your teen functions in social situations, at work or at school, and in other areas of life.

It can be difficult to know how to help someone with gender dysphoria, particularly when it’s your child. It’s important to listen to them, and to be supportive of changes that your gender diverse teen may make to help ease their experience of dysphoria. It’s also helpful to seek professional help, especially if you notice that your teen is experiencing anxiety, is self-harming or appears to be suicidal.

How can I support my non-binary teenager?

Existing outside of societal norms can be tough, so the most important thing when raising a non-binary child is to remind them that you love and support them, no matter what. 

Be supportive when they come out to you

There are no one-size-fits-all rules for raising a non-binary child, but being open and supportive when they come out to you is a great starting point. Coming out can be very scary, because your non-binary teen might feel like they will be rejected, dismissed or misunderstood. Listen to them first, and when you ask questions, try to be curious rather than judgemental. Thank them for trusting you with the information they share about themselves. You can also learn how to support your teen if they want to come out at school.

Refer to them by their chosen pronouns

If your child shares new pronouns with you, it can feel challenging and strange at first to use these, but it’s really worth the effort. When you use your teen’s preferred pronouns, it’s a way to demonstrate that you see the full spectrum of their gender.

Non-binary people often use the pronouns ‘they/them’ (e.g. ‘This is my child Sam. They’re nearly finished high school!’). However, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Some non-binary people use ‘she/her’ or ‘he/him’ pronouns, or mixed pronouns like ‘they/she’, ‘she/they’, ‘they/he’, ‘he/they’ or even ‘she/they/he’. This means they like to be referred to using both (or all) pronouns, even in the same sentence. 

Folks who are non-binary often want to be referred to using gender-neutral, rather than gendered, terms – for example: ‘person’ or ‘kid’, instead of ‘boy/girl’; ‘child’ instead of ‘daughter/son’; ‘sibling’ instead of ‘brother/sister’; ‘nibling’ instead of ‘niece/nephew’.

It’s okay to forget to use the new pronoun, as long as you correct yourself and are open to being corrected by your child in the moment. It's important that you recognise your mistake quickly, without being over-apologetic or getting annoyed.

Refer to them by their chosen name

Your non-binary teenager may choose a gender-neutral name for themselves. This can be a very important element of claiming their identity and reducing their gender dysphoria. For some parents of gender diverse youth, a name change might feel at first like a rejection. It can be helpful to think about contexts where we already accept name changes – for example, when migrating or marrying. Similarly, coming out as non-binary can mark a turning point for your child. Some teens might be happy to continue using their birth name as well as their chosen name. For others, hearing their old name, known as dead naming, can remind them of how it felt to be seen as something they are not. By using your child’s chosen name, you acknowledge them and show that you embrace their gender identity.

Be supportive of their choice in gender expression

Your teenager might express their gender through their choices of clothing, makeup, accessories and hairstyle. There is no one way to dress or look to be non-binary, so don’t be too surprised if their gender expression changes while they figure out what feels right. It’s good to keep in mind that this process can be sensitive and can make your teen feel vulnerable – so, if they’re opening up to you, it means they trust you. You can continue to build on this trust by asking how you can best support them during this part of their journey.

Is being non-binary a phase for my teen?

Being non-binary is an identity, not a phase. Your teenager’s relationship with gender is likely to evolve over time and may not remain static. The most important thing you can do is meet them where they’re at and support them the best way you can.

There have always been a range of experiences of gender and gender roles; we just haven’t always had the language to name them. With increased non-binary representation in media, gender diverse young people are able to see broader experiences of gender being reflected, and can feel validated and more confident in expressing who they are. Accepting your teenager’s gender identity can be very important for their feelings of safety, security and validation. By accepting, loving and supporting your teen and their gender identity, you can continue to build a strong and respectful relationship with them. 

If you’re looking for LGBTQIA+ support services for you or your teenager, check out this list.

  • Read Emma’s story about how she learnt to accept her gender identity as a teen.

  • Connect with other parents and share your story at ReachOut’s Parents Coaching.

  • Learn more about what supportive parenting is and practical tips on how to do it well.