Understanding the New Pronouns of Generation Z

He, she, they… such small words, but they carry new meaning for Generation Z. Across the country, middle and high school students are talking to their parents in different ways about pronouns. Some teens might announce to their parents that they want to change their name and pronouns to reflect their gender identity. Even more teens are telling their parents they know a schoolmate who has chosen a new name or new pronouns for themselves.

Confused? You’re not alone. For many people in the older generations, the changing aspects of gender identities are hard to keep up with, and for some adults, they are difficult to accept. This article is meant to offer parents a simplistic introduction to the concept of gender identities and pronouns, as well as tips for talking to your teens about this important topic.

Gender Identity

Most children grow up thinking of themselves as female or male and don’t question their gender. But some individuals – from all cultures and socioeconomic levels – identify as a gender that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender identity is your child’s sense of who they are – male, female, both or neither. Your child might identify themselves as:

  • cisgender – your child’s gender identity matches the sex given at birth
  • transgender – your child’s gender identity does not match the sex given at birth (i.e. a child assigned as a female at birth identifies as a male, or vice versa)
  • non-binary – your child’s gender identity is neither male nor female, or it’s a blend of male and female
  • gender fluid – your child moves between male and female
  • agender – your child doesn’t identify with any gender

An individual might discover or understand more about their gender identity over time. This might mean they express their identity in new or different ways throughout their life. It’s important to note that a person’s gender identity is different from their sexual orientation, which relates to romantic or sexual attraction.

What’s with the new pronouns?

Let’s start by defining what a pronoun is. Pronouns are words that a person uses to identify themselves instead of their name. For example, she/her/hers and he/him/his are typically feminine and masculine pronouns, respectively. The problem occurs when a person’s traditional pronouns don’t match their gender identity. It can feel very hurtful if an individual identifies as a male but is being referred to as she/her, or vice versa. Some people, especially non-binary or gender fluid individuals, feel more comfortable with gender-neutral pronouns. The most common gender-neutral pronouns are they/them/theirs, used in the singular to refer to an individual in a way that isn’t gendered.

Neopronouns are a category of new pronouns that some people are using in place of “she,” “he,” or “they” when referring to a person. Some examples include: xe/xem/xyr, ze/hir/hirs, and ey/em/eir. Neopronouns can be used by anyone, though most often they are used by transgender, non-binary, and/or gender nonconforming people.

You can’t always know what someone’s pronouns are by looking at them. Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show respect. When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, and/or alienated. It can also imply that you believe intersex, transgender, non-binary and gender-nonconforming people do not, or should not, exist.

A recent survey by Pew Research revealed 35% of Generation Z say they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, and 59% of Generation Z say that forms that ask about a person’s gender should include options beyond just male and female.

What Parents Can Do

  • If your teen hasn’t talked to you about gender identity or pronouns…
    • Role model acceptance by asking one additional question whenever you meet a new young person. In addition to asking, ‘What’s your name?’ you can ask, ‘What are your pronouns?’ This demonstrates to your teen that you are open to new ideas and that you are showing respect to all people.
  • If your teen is talking to you about people they know who are expressing a different gender identity or changing pronouns…
    • Respond with curiosity. You don’t have to agree with something to be curious about it. You can say, ‘Wow! Thanks for telling me. What do these new words mean to you?’ If you’re curious about something, that means the young person will be comfortable responding to you. If you’re interested in what they have to say, they’ll feel safe and continue sharing.
  • If your teen announces they want to change their pronouns…
    • Do not freak out. Recognize that your initial response is very important to your teen and has lifelong impacts on their mental health and wellness.
    • Sit down with your child and listen to the reasons why your child wants this. Seek to understand them. Ask questions for clarification, but do not offer rebuttals or judgments.
    • Thank your child for trusting you enough to have this conversation.
    • Say you will try your best to use their new pronouns, but admit it will likely be difficult and you will likely mess up many times before it becomes ingrained, and it is okay if your child corrects you.
    • Every month or two, revisit this issue with your child and ask how you can do better. Make corrections as necessary.
    • Make a game plan with your child about which family members and friends they would like to tell and how. Do not share this information with anyone without your child’s permission. Be a support to your child, by helping other family members and friends to make the adjustment and offer them resources to understand.
    • When you do accidentally use the incorrect pronouns, don’t overreact or keep apologizing. Simply apologize once, correct yourself and move on. In the conversation, say something right away, like “Sorry, I meant (insert pronoun)” and continue whatever you were saying.

Final Thoughts…

In this day of ever-loosening gender norms and greater acceptance of gender fluidity, it is normal for parents to feel left behind, scared, sad, or even angry. You are allowed to have difficult emotions: You are allowed to struggle with this change, to worry about your child’s future, or to grieve a life you thought your child was going to have. While you’re entitled to your feelings, you should not project those feelings on your child. They need your support. To process your own feelings, you need to get your own outside support. It’s a great idea to see a professional counselor or attend a support group.

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