By: Brenna Aredas
We all remember how difficult and confusing it was to be a teenager. I often say there is no amount of money I would accept to be 13 again (or any age younger than 25, really). Between bullying, the peer pressure to fit in, dealing with a changing body, and fumbling your way through crushes and relationships, there are so many feelings to deal with. These issues may become more challenging when gender identity and sexual orientation come into question. Imagine going through puberty trying to figure out if you really like girls or boys (or both!), or if you really feel like your body doesn’t match the gender you feel inside.
Young people who identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer) have 3 times the rate of suicidal thoughts and 5 times the rate of suicide attempts when compared to their heterosexual — or straight — peers. Further, LGBTQ young people are at a higher risk of experiencing bullying, homelessness, mental health issues, and have the highest rates of substance abuse. Many of these negative health outcomes result directly or indirectly from rejection by their family because of their LGBTQ identity.
These statistics can be frightening for a parent to consider. The good news is that parents can have a positive impact on these potentially negative health outcomes. Practicing positive parenting, like open and honest conversations, and showing unconditional support and acceptance, can help kids navigate the unique challenges facing teens.
These practices can benefit any child and can start at a young age. When I was a kid, my mom would say, “I will always love you no matter who you grow up to be, what you want to be, or who you love.” This was a great base for acceptance and support, and it assured me that I couldn’t break our relationship by being myself. I don’t think it is ever too late to start having talks like this with your kids or loved ones. However, if a “coming out” is fast approaching, there are some tips and pointers for how to have the conversation and create a safe space for your child to share with you.
- Don’t “out” your kid if you think or know they are LGBTQ. – Coming out is a seriously personal decision and takes different amounts of time for different people. It is possible that your child has not totally figured it out yet, or they haven’t decided they are ready for other people to know or hear those opinions. Either way, being outed is a painful and uncomfortable experience that will stick with your child for a long time.
- Don’t freak out! – Even though it may feel very personal and scary, this moment is not about you. If you make it about yourself, you may discourage your child from sharing things with you in the future. As we discussed above, coming out is a process that can take a long time. Consider how much time your child has spent worrying over whether it is physically or emotionally safe to tell you (or anyone), how to tell you, and when to tell you. Give it time and remember that this is a delicate conversation. Let your child lead the conversation and do a lot of listening.
- Believe and respect them – It can be difficult to think that your child may know more about themselves than you do. After all, you raised them! However difficult it may be, resist the urge to tell them it’s “just a phase.” If it is, then it will pass and challenging it will not contribute anything positive to the situation. If it’s not a phase, challenging it only tells your child that you don’t think they know themselves or trust their judgement. While it may be confusing for you if your child wishes to be called by a different name or pronouns, it is a small effort to put forth in order to help your child grow up happy and well adjusted.
- Reassure them – When it is your turn to talk, thank your child for sharing this with you and tell them that everything is OK. After this conversation is over, you can continue to show subtle support by speaking positively of LGBTQ people, attending LGBTQ events, and connecting with other parents of LGBTQ kids.
- Don’t tease them, and don’t let anyone else tease them – Sometimes we may want to make jokes about things that are uncomfortable, but jokes about your child’s identity are just not funny right now, or maybe ever. One of the best ways to show support is with action. Don’t just say you support your kid, show them. Make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that you are behind your child and anybody that has anything to say is welcome to keep it to themselves or discuss it with you privately.
- Do your homework – If you are unfamiliar with LGBTQ culture, phrases, and terms, get to studying! It’s a great way to show your support for your child and can prevent you from asking embarrassing or uncomfortable questions of your child. Further, it will prepare you with information so that you can ask your child educated and thoughtful questions.
- Seek your own support – It is totally OK to have reservations or feelings about this process. It is just as important for someone to support you, as it is for you to support your child. Whether you seek support in family and friends or LGBTQ organizations, make sure you take care of yourself as well.
Remember that you are not the first parent of an LGBTQ child, and you won’t be the last. There is a lot of pressure surrounding the “coming out” talk, and working to help it go smoothly and show your support are the best things you can do as a parent. Coming out as an LGBTQ person does not make your child any less “them.” Think of it as an invitation to meet the most genuine version of your child.