We've all heard it and at some point, may have experienced it first-hand – words matter. Pronouns, a handful of words that typically roll off the tongue without a second thought, also count. For transgender and nonbinary people, these small words can carry great weight.
What are pronouns and why do they matter?
Many people use pronouns (such as she/her/hers or he/him/his) based on how a person looks or their name, which isn't always accurate. Making assumptions can send a message that a person should look a certain way to fit a specific gender.
Many, but not all, transgender and nonbinary people change their pronoun to better fit with how they perceive themselves. While pronouns often are used to imply gender, it is important to not make assumptions about a person's gender based on their pronouns. Not everyone who uses she/her pronouns identifies exclusively as female and not everyone who uses he/him pronouns identifies exclusively as male.
In addition to she/her/hers and he/him/his, some people use the pronoun they/them/theirs. Although use of they/them/theirs pronouns has increased recently, use of they/them/theirs as a singular pronoun has a long history. For many nonbinary people, they/them/theirs is a better fit that she/her/hers or he/him/his. They/them/theirs can also be used to refer to an individual whose gender is unknown. Some people use a combination of pronouns or use their name instead of a pronoun. A handful of additional pronouns such as ze/hir/hirself also exist.
For some people, categorizing pronouns as "preferred" is an issue. Laura Kuper, Ph.D., a psychologist with Children's Health℠, says assuming pronoun use is a matter of preference for someone is the problem. "Gender can't be changed. Pronoun choice isn't a preference; it's what's correct," Dr. Kuper explains.
A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that correct pronoun use has even bigger implications. In the study, transgender youth had a lower risk for depression and suicidal thoughts when parents, teachers and peers used the youths' chosen names and pronouns. In the largest study of transgender and nonbinary youth, rates of suicide attempt in the past year was 28% among youth who did not have their pronouns respected by others in comparison to 12% of youth whose correct pronouns were used by most or all people.
Even though making a simple word change can have such a positive impact, it doesn't mean it's always simple and easy to do. Dr. Kuper shares strategies and tips for how to support youth in making the change.
5 tips for using someone's correct pronouns
1. Ask and share
Like most things that involve change, communication is key to making the process smoother. If you're a parent or a transgender youth, that can mean initiating the discussion about what pronoun(s) should be used. Don't make assumptions. It can be uncomfortable to start the conversation, but the willingness to have it goes a long way in establishing trust and a sense of acceptance.
Rather than diving in, Dr. Kuper recommends being thoughtful about where and when to ask. "Parents should make it a private conversation," they said. Being mindful of both you and your child's emotional state is also important. Aim to have the discussion when calm and free from distractions.
2. Don't make pronoun use an issue
Talking about pronoun use doesn't have to be a big deal. Making a pronoun change shouldn't create fanfare or unnecessary attention. Take advantage of opportunities to share pronoun use, such as on name tags or in email signatures. Stating pronouns in an introduction – "Hi, I'm Jay; I go by 'they' pronouns," or "This is Leslie, who uses 'she' pronouns" – also helps normalize pronoun use.
3. Respect privacy
It's important to remember that someone may not be using one pronoun across the board. "Don't assume someone uses the same pronoun in all situations," says Dr. Kuper. "Young people starting to come out will appreciate you've asked and may want you to use 'he,' but may still be using 'she' at school," says Dr. Kuper. The best solution is just to ask or specify what pronouns should be used.
4. Practice, practice, practice
Changing pronouns to fit someone's identity is an important step in thinking about someone in a different – and correct – way. Using the correct pronoun all the time, even when you're thinking about that person helps retrain the brain to know that person by their correct name.
But what happens when you make a mistake? It's going to happen, assures Dr. Kuper. "Parents often feel pressure about getting a pronoun wrong and then feel bad if they do," says Dr. Kuper. When you do, acknowledge the mistake and correct yourself right then. "But don't over-apologize and draw even more attention to it. You don't want to make it about you and how you feel."
5. Accept that change can take time
For parents, making a pronoun change can be a struggle. "After spending so long using one pronoun, it's a hard change," says Dr. Kuper, "There may even be a grieving process that happens and is valid."
For youth who want to use a different pronoun, it's not a rejection of what was given to them, but rather an acceptance of who they are. Dr. Kuper says it's a balance for both sides. "It's hard for teens, too, who are struggling to be accepted, and feel hurt when the correct pronoun isn't used."
Looking for more information? View these resources for transgender youth and their families. Children's Health offers comprehensive mental health programs and resources to help families navigate challenges they may face. See more ways to support mental health in LGBTQ youth.
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