Supporting your intersex teenager
This can help if you:
- have a child with an intersex variation or aspects of male and female biology
- want to understand the challenges intersex teenagers face
- want to be better at supporting an intersex teenager.
What is an intersex variation?
The term ‘intersex’ is a broad term that describes someone born with aspects of both male and female characteristics. What this looks like will vary between each individual, and there are many associated terms and diagnoses. These may include (but are not limited to):
- intersex variation
- intersex trait
- "disorder of development"
- "difference of sex development"
- androgen insensitivity syndrome
- 5-alpha reductase deficiency
- congenital adrenal hyperplasia
- Klinefelter syndrome.
Having an intersex variation is common - up to 1 in 2,000 people are said to have an intersex variation
Supporting your teenager and respecting their autonomy
The most powerful thing we can do for our teenagers is to affirm that they are natural, loved and normal just the way they are, and that every person’s body is different. Some essential tips for supporting an intersex child or teenager.
- Be honest with your teenager about their intersex variation. Choosing not to tell them will communicate to them that their body is shameful.
- Explain that intersex characteristics are natural and normal variations of the body. Show them examples of the different kinds of human bodies, and explain to them that everyone is unique.
- Reinforce and show them the diversity of families. There is a diversity of family structures and ways to have children if you cannot reproduce. Offer your teenager books and media that show the diversity of families.
- Allow them to make decisions about their body, especially medical decisions. Everyone including children deserves the right to consent to any decisions about their bodies. Support them and help them to seek appropriate peer support and professional guidance. Also empower them to decide who to tell and how.
- Listen. Let your teenager define what having an intersex variation means to them, and how they feel about their body and identity. You can also create opportunities for them to discuss their body as they might not be feeling confident to bring it up on their own.
- Avoid using stereotypes when you talk about boys and girls. Be sensitive to any possible heightened awareness of difference.
Navigating the school environment
School can be a difficult time for many teenagers. It is natural for teenagers to compare themselves to peers and to attach self-worth to how well they fit in.
Let them decide whether to tell their school, and allow them to be involved in any conversation. Offer to share information and resources with their school, and encourage their school to be a part of school-wide educational support programs such as Safe Schools. Maintain an open dialog with the school.
If your teenager does not feel comfortable disclosing their intersex variation, ask if they would be comfortable with you sending pamphlets or information to the school anonymously.
If you’re worried you can learn more about bullying and how to support them here.
How to talk to doctors about intersex conditions
Pressuring parents or teenagers into accepting unnecessary medical procedures remains unfortunately common. Many medical professionals you encounter may lack the training and understanding to support the needs of intersex teenagers.
You should not consent to medically unnecessary or irreversible decisions about your child’s body.
Let your teenager know that they have the right to decide not to accept procedures they do not want or that they are unsure about. They can and should wait until they are confident in their identity before deciding about any cosmetic procedures. Reinforce this in conversations with their doctors.
Allow your teenager to decide who comes with them to medical appointments, and be sensitive to times when they may wish to speak to a medical professional alone.
Be well researched so that you can be a strong advocate for them, so that you can know the difference between a medical emergency and an optional procedure, and so that you can help your teenager navigate the health system.
Make sure that your teenager knows that getting counseling or therapeutic support is an option and does not mean they are ‘crazy’ or ‘weak’. Find support groups and communities of intersex people that they can connect with. Encourage them to read about other intersex experiences on websites like AISSGA, OII Australia and interACT.
Support services include:
- OII Australia
- Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group Australia
- National LGBTI Health Alliance
- interACT (USA)