How to Support Adolescents Questioning Their Sexuality
Being a teenager can be confusing. Not only is your body going through physical changes, but you’re also learning how to construct your own identity and navigating how you relate to the world. Sexuality is a big part of that personal journey. But knowing where you identify across the sexuality spectrum doesn’t always come easy.
“Questioning is a natural process,” said Dorothy Espelage, an educational psychologist and professor of education at the University of North Carolina. “Teens may find they’re attracted to both sexes or none at all, but you’ve got to remember that adolescence is a time where they don’t necessarily want to be put in a box because they don’t always see themselves represented in traditional categories of straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual.”
For some teens, questioning their sexual identity can feel like living in limbo. When confronted with the instinctive desire to belong somewhere, it can be stressful to figure out where they stand in society by themselves. Adults in their lives can help them navigate this experience by carving out a healthy space for them to explore their questions safely and by validating what they are going through.
Navigating Challenges that Come with Questioning Your Identity
The experience of questioning sexuality is different for everyone, but can be influenced by the environment in which they live, family and friends they interact with, and the overall community they are a part of, Espelage said. An affirming and accepting community may respond differently than a more conservative community, but even within those communities, teens may find more accepting people to lean on.
“It’s just hard for some heteronormative families who fear that (because their child is) a gender or sexual minority today, life is going to be hard in some parts of our country,” she said. “The parents are well-intending, but there’s something risky about the unknown space of questioning.”
Friends can be a strong source of support for their questioning peers. But interacting with other teens who don’t share the same internal struggle can sometimes feel isolating for adolescents.
“There’s something about not knowing when people around you know,” Espelage said. “If you’re in a peer group where everyone is gender-fluid, questioning will likely look different because you aren’t the only one. But say if you’re one of the girls in a group of girlfriends who are all boy-crazy except for you, that’s where the angst can come from.”
of LGBTQ students were verbally harassed due to their sexual orientation.
(such as spreading rumors) was reported by most LGBTQ students.
of LGBTQ students experienced cyberbullying.
Espelage noted that questioning teens tend to have the highest rates of victimization by their peers. In her study on effects of bullying on LGB and questioning students in schools, Espelage concluded that “students who were questioning their sexual orientation reported the most bullying, homophobic victimization, drug use, feelings of depression and suicidality, and more truancy than straight or LGB students.”
Often, homophobic victimization comes from within a peer group, sometimes masquerading as jokes. While Espelage said homophobic namecalling can be pretty normative, it can be a source of added pressure for questioning teens.
“If you’re solidly gay and out, but someone calls you a homophobic slur, you’re like, ‘Yeah, so what?’ ” Espelage said. “But if you’re really struggling with your identity and have to deal with that on a daily basis from your trusted friends, that’s very hurtful. And to attack that you almost have to come out.”
These situations can leave teens feeling like they have to make a decision about how to identify, before they fully know themselves and are ready to share, Espelage said. She also noted that prematurely identifying could close them off from exploring their identity with LGBTQ-affirming groups or organizations, out of the fear that others will assume they are LGBT. At the same time, “coming out” could elicit strong reactions from people who make assumptions about who the teen is when they are still learning about themselves.
How to Support Questioning Teens
Affirmation, strong family and social support, and open communication can help teens navigate this period of questioning while staying mentally resilient, Espelage said.
Adults should reevaluate their own biases and assumptions about the LGBTQ community to begin to create more inclusive environments that allow teens to safely explore questions about their sexuality. Espelage offered the following suggestions for adults:
Think of sexuality as a spectrum.
It’s also a continuum, which means that sexual identity can evolve slowly over time.
People can be “out” in certain contexts and not others. They may be out at school and not at home or vice versa. Give teens agency over their coming out process while maintaining confidentiality. Espelege encouraged adults to:
Avoid asking questions such as, “Are you gay?” It’s important not to push teens before they are ready. Give them space to figure it out at their own pace.
Have conversations guiding teens on how to cope when they’re at different points of the coming out process. It’s important for teens to safely manage their identity through the various contexts they live in and experience.
Be clear and affirming with support and encouragement that is unconditional.
Actively listen to a teen when they are expressing themselves and don’t shut them down with phrases such as, “Well, you know you like boys,” which can invalidate their sexual and/or romantic feelings.
Encourage healthy exploration.
Emphasize that sexuality is a natural and normal process to learn about and it’s up to them when they choose to explore that, Espelege said. This can be best done in an inclusive environment.
Schools can serve as a neutral buffer, especially if questioning teens come from non-affirming families. Gender-sexuality alliances provide a safe space for LGBTQ youth to have peer-to-peer conversation under faculty support. These organizations can provide a space where students can process difficult emotions, while also providing mentor figures, such as a junior or senior classmate who has been in their shoes and can offer advice and guidance.
Teens are watching adults closely to determine if they will be supportive. It’s important for adults to advocate for LGBTQ tolerance and acceptance.
TV Shows with LGBTQ+ characters, Common Sense Media: a list of TV shows with LGBTQ-inclusive character portrayals that are child and teen appropriate. It’s important to see diversity in sexual identities represented in media, but how they are portrayed is significant (i.e., if the show is not expliclty pointing out that a gay couple, but they are a natural and accepted part of it without question).