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Ask The Expert: Peer Pressure and Sexuality/Gender

Dear Your Teen,

I’m worried about the influence that peers and friends who are questioning gender identity or who have identified as LGBTQ+ will have on our 14-year-old 8th grade daughter. I don’t know how it will affect her.

EXPERT | Stephanie Newman Ph.D.

It sounds like you might be worried your daughter’s sexual orientation and gender identification will be influenced if she’s spending time with and imitating friends, and that somehow she’ll “become gay.” While I have no information about your daughter’s life, choices, or DNA, I can say that neither gender identity nor sexual orientation in teens is determined by outside influences.

More importantly, I encourage you to put this particular concern aside because especially now, when your daughter is growing, developing, and changing, what’s at stake here is not her gender identification or sexuality. Rather, it’s her self-esteem, mental health, and overall sense of wellbeing.

If you’re worried about peer influence, creating a home environment where her mental health can flourish is key. Feeling accepted by family members profoundly impacts our health and well-being.

Also, know that it’s typical for children at your daughter’s age to experiment with identity. Friends provide a makeshift family and testing ground. Adolescents commonly look to peers for validation and mirroring. Their esteem is bolstered when they see themselves reflected by others. That’s why, for example, kids prefer to dress like their friends.

While your 14-year-old daughter figures out who she is and wants to be, she needs a safe space so she can get to know herself, including her identity and her values.

The challenge is to create that safe space even when your child says things or acts in a way that doesn’t align with your morals, religious convictions, or personal values. This can be very, very hard. But the fact that you are asking the question shows your love and concern for your daughter. More than arguing, what you want to do is foster her healthy psychological and emotional development. Which means that, while she’s figuring herself out, sometimes you might need to bite your tongue.

Here are four ways you can support your daughter’s healthy psychological and emotional development:
  1. Offer an open and accepting attitude. Your daughter may try on different personas as she figures out the dimensions of her own. Accept her experimentation and you will raise a child who’s comfortable in her own skin.
  2. Create an environment of trust. If you listen to your daughter without judgment, she’ll more likely tell you things as they come up. Sometimes she might need you only as a sounding board. Other times, she might need your compassion as you explore and sort out answers to her questions together.
  3. Support her friendships. Of course, if any of her friendships or relationships are toxic, dangerous, or pose a threat to her physical safety, those need to be addressed and remedied. But if her friends are otherwise harmless, let your daughter keep her friendships and imitate her friends. She needs to learn how to develop and maintain healthy peer relationships that offer her camaraderie and understanding.
  4. Get support. If it becomes too difficult to provide the at-home support your daughter needs because, for example, your values are in question, you might consider finding a therapist who specializes in psychodynamics—for both of you. This kind of psychotherapy explores how you feel and think and make choices, which may help you navigate how to parent your daughter without compromising your ideals and personal integrity.

It can be hard to watch your child grow away from you as they mature through adolescence. But with loving support, you can help them navigate this stage of development successfully—even if they walk a path you wouldn’t choose for them. 

Stephanie Newman Ph.D.

Dr. Stephanie Newman is a clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst, author, and adjunct faculty member at Columbia University who works with parents in private practice and often fields questions about adolescent struggles for autonomy. (Find her at https://psychotherapistnextdoor.com)

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