The power of pronouns
June 10, 2022
Drawings of people with a variety of pronouns

    The power of pronouns

    Pronouns might seem short and simple, but they’re deeply meaningful. Using a person’s correct name and pronouns shows that others acknowledge and affirm their identity.

    What are gender identity and fluidity?

    Gender identity refers to how a person feels inside. Sometimes gender identity matches the male or female sex assigned at birth, other times it doesn’t. Gender fluidity refers to a change in a person’s gender identity or expression over time. What feels right today, may not be the same tomorrow or five years from now.

    More and more people are using gender-neutral pronouns, such as they/them, instead of the gender-specific he/him or she/her. This may be because they don’t feel aligned with a specific gender, they’d rather not conform to rigid gender expectations or for some other reason. Other pronouns include ey/em, ze/zir and more.

    Why are pronouns especially important for young people?

    Respecting a person’s pronouns can have an especially profound impact on youth. When influential adults in their lives use the correct pronouns, it’s a sign that they’re valued just as they are.

    “Imagine being called the wrong name on repeat. It would be really frustrating, like you’re not quite being seen,” said Dr. Kathryn Jones, child and adolescent psychiatrist. “I’ve had patients describe it as not feeling comfortable in their own skin, day in and day out.”

    Kids and teens are growing up in a world that’s recognizing the gender landscape more fully than generations past. It’s becoming common practice to discuss gender identity as openly as hobbies, favorite subjects in school, etc. This is all part of learning and accepting who we all are as individual human beings.

    If your child, or another young person, shares that they’ve changed their pronouns, a positive reaction can mean the world to them. Thank them for being open with you and go a step further by asking them questions like what the pronouns mean to them. Showing interest and seeking to understand will keep the lines of communication open.

    Scary statistics signify need for acceptance

    According to The Trevor Project, non-binary (not identifying as strictly male or strictly female) youth whose pronouns are not respected at all attempted suicide at two and a half times the rate of those whose pronouns were always or mostly respected. As respect for correct pronouns goes down, rates of attempted suicide go up. It’s a matter of life and death.

    Teaching kids about pronouns

    This is one of those situations where our kids may be able to teach us more than the other way around. As adults, we need to be open to hearing, accepting and adapting to what we’re learning. When it comes to younger kids, there are several books that address the topics of gender identity and pronouns in ways that little ones can comprehend. As they grow and discover more about themselves and others, the stage of acceptance and understanding is already set.

    What if I’m not sure what pronouns to use?

    A great first step is to share your pronouns when introducing yourself. This opens the door for the other person to share theirs without feeling awkward. If they don’t share their pronouns in the beginning, stick with using their name rather than simply assuming based on their appearance. They may not be comfortable sharing their pronouns just yet or choose not to for some other reason.

    You may mess up and use the wrong pronoun a time or two, especially if the person’s pronouns are different from what you’re used to using for them. There’s no need to dwell or make a big deal about it. Simply apologize, correct yourself and try to remember next time. Making a mistake is better than not making the effort at all.

    Valuing our patients and team members

    CHoR and VCU Health value how our team members, patients and families identify and recently rolled out pronoun pins for team members.

    Hear how adolescent medicine physician Dr. An Pham provides gender-affirming care at CHoR.

    Read more about supporting kids’ and teens’ mental health.

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