The teen years are a time when a person begins to discover his or her gender identity. A teen's sex -meaning if the teen or male or female - is determined by genetics, but his or her gender identity is determined by a combination of factors, including the gender roles he or she adopts and his or her sexual orientation.
Gender roles determine how "masculine" or "feminine" a teen seems. Teens are exposed to gender roles from birth through parents, the media, and society, but during the teen years, teens begin to question and choose various gender roles. Some examples of traditional gender roles include:
- Males like sports and outdoors activities, females like sewing, cooking, and indoor activities
- Males do well in math and science, females do well in English, art, and music
- Males want careers, females want to stay home
Though these are traditional "masculine" and "feminine" roles, teen boys may find that they enjoy cooking or art, and teen girls may excel in science or sports. Teens who feel pressured to conform to gender roles are more likely to suffer from depression than those who are encouraged to pursue whichever activities they find fulfilling. Teens of both sexes often experiment with their appearance and may try styles that question traditional gender roles. Adopting "masculine" or "feminine" gender roles does not determine or indicate a teen's sexual orientation.
Teen sexual orientation is not the same as teen gender roles. Three sexual orientations are generally recognized:
- Heterosexual, meaning a teen is attracted to members of the opposite sex
- Homosexual, meaning a teen is attracted to members of the same sex
- Bisexual, meaning a teen feels attraction for members of both sexes
Sexual orientation is determined by a variety of genetic, environmental, and emotional factors, but not by a teen's appearance or activities.
Being curious or having thoughts about members of the same sex is common among teens, and does not always mean a teen is homosexual. Also, strong feelings of friendship are normal during this time, and do not necessarily indicate a person's sexuality.
Teens who are confused about their sexual orientation should not use sexual activities to help them determine their sexual preference. Abstinence is a safe and healthy choice for all teens, and time, and perhaps talking to trusted friends and adults, will help them determine their sexual preference. If a teen's confusion or uncertainty about sexuality is due to some earlier trauma, such as abuse, he or she should seek counseling to resolve these issues and be able to enjoy healthy relationships.
Even if a teen knows his or her sexual orientation, he or she may choose not to act on it. A teen of any sexual orientation can choose abstinence, and a bisexual teen can choose to have romantic relationships with teens of only one sex. Some teens who are homosexual choose to have a heterosexual relationship, but this should be done with caution as it can result in risky sexual behaviors, emotional pain for both partners, and depression. Any sexually active teen, regardless of sexual orientation, should use condoms to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
Teens who are homosexual or bisexual need to consider how and when to tell family and friends. Homosexual or bisexual teens may be at greater risk for depression, suicide, or other mental health problems, especially if they face a strong prejudice against them from peers or family. Teens who are struggling with gender issues, and their parents, may benefit from talking to a school counselor, mental health professional, and/or religious leader.
Parents should share their own values and beliefs with their children and teens beginning at an early age, but should not reject or put down teens who have different values or make choices their parents are not comfortable with. Teens need to feel love from their parents regardless of the choices they make. Gender identity issues can be confusing during the teen years, but with support and patience, most teens are able to develop healthy gender identities.
Gender Identity Sources:
- WebMD/The Cleveland Clinic "Sexual Health: Sexual Orientation: Homosexuality and Bisexuality" [online]
- National Guideline Clearinghouse [online]
- 4Parents.gov, Topics, Parenting, Abstinence [online]