Coming out requires an act of courage from teens and parents alike. It can be just as terrifying for a teen to do as it can be for parents to hear. Sadly, when even the most understanding and supportive of parents hear these words, the first things that parade across their minds are often a multitude of fear fantasies.
“Will my child get bullied?”
“ Will my child be able to find acceptance?”
“Will my friends/family/faith community understand?”
“Will my child find a mate?”
“Will my child contract HIV?”
“Will I ever have grandchildren?”
It seems like every few weeks there is another tragic news story to reinforce the worries of parents of LGBT youth. While it is true that teens that identify as something other than heterosexual or cisgender (see definition below) may be at an increased risk for a host of wellness issues, the great news is that you, as a parent, have tremendous influence on your child’s safety and self-acceptance.
LGBT (and any other sexuality or gender related identity your child may claim, here to forward referred to as xyz) Community Vocabulary
One of the first things a parent of all young persons, heterosexual and non-heterosexual, will want to understand better is the language preferred by members of the LGBT community. Here are some definitions:
LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.
Sexual orientation—Refers to those to whom a person feels a physical and/or emotional attraction: people of the opposite gender, the same gender, both genders, those that do not identify with a gender, or person-specific.
Gender identity—A person’s inner sense of gender—male, female, some of each, neither.
Transgender – Having a gender identity that is different from the gender to which one is assigned at birth.
Cisgender – Having a gender identity that is aligned with the gender assigned to one at birth.
Gay – Refers to general homosexual orientation and/or attraction of men to other men.
Lesbian – Refers to attraction of women to other women.
Bisexual – Refers to an individual who is attracted to both men and women.
Pansexual – Individuals for whom gender and sexual orientation are irrelevant factors in their attraction to another person.
Parents who acknowledge and affirm their teen’s sexual and/or gender identity teach their kids that they are loved and welcomed for the unique essence of who they are. Research conducted by the Family Acceptance Project has found links between parental rejection and increases in mental health issues and risky behaviors. Rejecting behaviors included pressuring your child to be more or less masculine or feminine, name-calling regarding your child’s identity and making your child keep their identity a secret, among others. However, these researchers also found that supportive family behaviors promoted the well-being of LGBT youth. For example, families that talk openly about their children’s LGBT status, appreciate their children’s non-conforming clothing or hairstyle preferences, invite their children’s LGBT friends to join family activities and foster their child’s participation in LGBT youth organizations or events are much more likely to have youth with good general health, high self esteem and stronger social support. They are also less likely to experience depression, drug use and suicide. Click here to read more of the research on these links.
What does supporting your LGBT…xyz teen look like?
- Talk with your child about their LGBT…xyz identity and support your child’s gender expression.
- Be curious: Ask respectful questions that demonstrate a clear desire to know and understand your child better such as: “what does this term mean to you? Is there anything in particular you want me to know or understand about what you are going through?”
- Honor your teen’s affirmed gender and gender pronouns: both in how you interact with them directly as well as in how you refer to them indirectly. Attempt to view your child’s potential choice of a different name not as an affront to you, but as an affirmation of themselves.
- Click here to watch a video of one family’s journey to accepting that their child was transgender.
- Support your child’s LGBT….xyz identity even though you may feel uncomfortable.
- Express affection and if possible enthusiasm, when your child tells you or when you learn that your child is LGBT: “thank you for sharing this knowledge of yourself with me, I’m so excited for you!”
- Require that other family members and friends respect your LGBT child.
- Get permission to share your child’s revelations – they may not want to be ‘out’ to all family and friends yet.
- If you have permission, be open with friends and family members, even if you fear rejection. After all, this is the conundrum that your child faces with each and every social interaction.
- Align yourself with your child and serve as an advocate if he or she is mistreated because of their LGBT identity.
- Ask your child if they feel safe or supported at school or in the community.
- Inquire about supports and education in place at your child’s school such as non-discrimination policies, groups, or mentors.
- Encourage your congregation to be supportive of LGBT members or find a new faith community that welcomes your family and LGBT child.
- Identify and explore messaging in the media teaching what it means to be a man, woman or something else.
- Small statements can produce big feelings of shame. Assertions that our genitals define our interests (such as people with “girl”-parts like or are “naturally” better at fashion and people with “boy”-parts like or are “naturally” better at sports contribute to negative feelings of difference and isolation when our authentic selves do not align with dominant expectations of us.
- Show your child that you celebrate the diversity of human expression and welcome the uniqueness of their emerging self by acknowledging and questioning these messages when you encounter them in movies or music.
- Share experiences of trying to conform to expectations of femininity or masculinity. For example, most tried certain activities they were not interested in, but were expected to be interested in because of their gender. Many people have avoided certain activities or down-played gender non-conforming interests to avoid negative attention. This includes masculine folks avoiding expressing big emotions they feel because it is not considered manly, or feminine folks refraining from asserting themselves for fear of being perceived as bossy, or the other b-word.
- Validate your child by supporting their need for shared community and for coping strategies.
- Bring your child to LGBT organizations or events and be open to accompanying them if they would like to have you to take part.
- Connect your child with a positive LGBT adult role model or mentor.
- Welcome your child’s LGBT friends & partner to your home and to family events and activities.
- Suggest and model a balance of emotion-focused coming strategies (ie., practicing self-compassion and holding space for big feelings) and problem-focused coping strategies (ie., learning about school policy for dealing with bullies and following through).
- Believe your child can have a happy future as an LGBTxyz adult!
Critical Do’s and Don’t’s:
Do tell them you love them
Do allow them to come out to you and the rest of the world in their own time and on their own terms
Don’t tell them you always knew
Don’t assume that coming out means you now know what to expect: sexuality and gender are both fluid and different terms mean different things to different age cohorts—ask questions and be open!
While it is essential to be supportive of your child, it is also perfectly normal for you to feel conflicted about this new reality.
The truth is, if your child continues to identify as something other than cisgender or heterosexual over the course of their lives, your identity will have to change too. You will find yourself in the position of continually having to come out to friends, families or colleagues as a parent of a non-cis or non-heterosexual kid. Many people find this prospect stressful and it is not uncommon to wish things were different. If you have such feelings, they need to be allowed, acknowledged and accepted in order for you to be able to provide authentic affection, enthusiasm and support for your emerging adult. When you have these complicated feelings, it is important to find venues to explore and work through them outside of the home. PFLAG (parents, family and friends and lesbians and gays) was formed by parents of gay youth to support other parents. In the last decade they have expanded their scope to support parents of transgender youth as well as youth of every other sexual orientation. There are local chapters all over the country. If you think you might like to connect with other parents striving to support their LGBT teens, this may be a good opportunity for you. Lastly, there are some books you may find useful such as This is a book for Parents of Gay Kids: A Question and Answer Guide for Everyday Life ! By Danielle Owens-Reid and Kristin Russo.
Although the world may not yet be as welcoming or nurturing as we might hope, as a parent you have the power to impact how your child will experience that wider world. With your acceptance and encouragement, your “at-risk” teen can thrive and flourish regardless of how they identify or whom they find attractive or love during any phase of their life. It takes great courage to be one’s authentic self. If your teen has had the courage to display to you a piece of themselves that may threaten their acceptance, show them that you honor that courage by demonstrating that you are worthy of their trust in you.
The Family Equality Council – a national organization bringing resources to and advocating for public policy to support LGBT families and families with LGBT members. http://www.familyequality.org
The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) – a national resource for improving the learning environment of schools for all students, particularly those who are sexual and gender minorities. http://www.glsen.org
PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends and Lesbians and Gays) was formed by parents of gay youth to support other parents. It has over 350 chapters in all 50 states. www.pflag.org
TransYouth Family Allies – the major national resource for parents of trans* youth containing news, listings of parent blogs and recommended readings. www.imatyfa.org
Trans Kids Purple Rainbow – an advocacy group of parents of transgender kids. www.transkidspurplerainbow.org
Gender Spectrum – a resource for families, educators, social workers and medical providers. www.genderspectrum.org
5 Things you Should Know about LGBTQ Youth – A Child Trends post that covers some of the LGBTQ youth basics.
Article Written By Abra Bankendorf Vigna
Abra is a PhD student in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Abra spent 10 years running a social ed and educational support group for LGBT youth and their allies. She has mentored over a dozen youth in becoming peer educators and has only recently stepped away from Youth Development to become a first time mom with her partner of 8 years.