I work with a parent support group of LGBTQIA+ youth. In this group, we help parents along their journey of supporting their children as they navigate the complex world of sexual orientation and gender identity.
It’s very common for parents to experience a sense of grief after a child “comes out”. This is normal and does not mean that a parent doesn’t love and support their child. Many parents grieve the life or the child they thought they knew or grieve the new life their family is embarking on. Part of working with parents with children that are part of the LGBTQIA+ community is accepting that, just as children are on a journey, so are parents. A parent’s process can show up in different ways depending on the family. Here are some of the most common responses I hear from parents.
I don’t understand.
One of the biggest issues parents face is quite simple – they just don’t really understand what all of this means. It is important to remember that there has been significant progress on issues related to gender and sexual orientation over the course of one generation. Parents of today’s teenagers grew up in a very different world than their children. Teenagers today have an arsenal of vocabulary for different gender expressions and identities. Even those of us who work with this population every day are constantly learning new terms. For many parents, simply grasping what their child is trying to explain can be a challenge. I often hear parents say things like, “What do all the letters stand for?” or, “My child has said they are queer – what does that mean?” Or even, “When I was a kid, there was gay and straight, and now there are all these different words; I don’t know what it all means.”
My child is confused.
Another phrase I often hear from parents is, “My child is just confused.” It’s pretty common for parents to question the legitimacy of their child’s gender expression or sexual orientation. This might be in part because their child is going through so much exploration in other areas of life, like trying out different social groups or even hairstyles. It’s common for parents to think that their child is just trying to figure out who they are, and they’re confusing themselves into thinking they’re a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, but that they’ll come back around.
Another reason this is a common response is because for many kids, by the time they’re ready to talk to their parents about their gender identity or sexual orientation, they’ve known for quite a while. They may have had years to make sense of their gender identity or sexual orientation, but it may seem like a surprise for their parents. It’s no wonder, when you think of it that way, that parents may think their child is confused. After all, it seems to come out of nowhere.
As I mentioned, there is often a sense of grief or loss for parents of LGBTQIA+ children. If you think about the stages of grief, the first step is often denial. This is what “my child is confused” is rooted in. It’s a sense that this news is big and scary, and it would be so much easier if it just weren’t true at all.
To a teen, “my child is confused” can feel very hurtful. Many teens have shared with me that they are not confused and that they know who they are and who they’re attracted to and how they identify as a person. When their parents say that they’re confused, it feels harmful and invalidating. To a teen it can sound like, “I don’t accept you. I don’t love you.” Most parents I work with don’t mean that. This is just a stop along the journey for many parents as they learn to understand and navigate this complex issue.
The world is scary; I want to protect my child.
I often hear parents say things like, “I’ve been around a long time and I know how the world treats people who are different.” A pretty universal experience for parents is worry. Most parents worry about their children’s wellbeing and their future. This worry gets ramped up when a child shares that they identify as a part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
I often tell parents that sometimes worry looks a lot like anger. What feels like worry to a parent (will my child be safe?) can feel like anger to a child. Teens have told me that it feels as though their parents don’t think they’re strong enough to handle what might come their way, that their parents don’t believe in them or don’t accept them. When a teen feels this way, it can often escalate quickly. In reality, it’s that a parent is scared out of their mind, because they’ve seen or heard really horrific things that have happened to people in the LGBTQIA+ community.
With this in mind, the way we support parents in our group is to embrace each of these common themes and concerns. Every family is different, and every family’s journey will look different. However, there are things that I encourage all families to do.
With new generations comes new knowledge. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the terminology and nuance of this topic. But parents can dip their toes in the water by looking up certain terms that are relevant to their family, seeking support groups or asking questions to adults who have knowledge of these issues. Something as simple as gaining a basic vocabulary or knowing what each of the letters in LGBTQIA+ stands for is a great starting place and shows children that you’re committed to learning and understanding more about them.
Support, not dismiss.
I think that a person’s first experience with “coming out” is pivotal to their journey. It’s widely accepted in the mental health community that the first interaction you have when you reveal the story of your trauma to another person sets the stage for how long and how healthy (or unhealthy) your healing journey will be. If the first person you tell is welcoming and understanding and supportive, your journey is likely to be easier and more successful. If the first person you tell is harmful or invalidating, the journey can be more difficult. While I am not comparing sexual orientation to trauma, I believe the same theory applies here. I think that a person’s first time revealing something so intimate and vulnerable about themselves sets the stage for their journey of self-expression and identity development.
This is why I believe it’s so important to be supportive when a person shares about their gender identity or sexual orientation. It can create a trajectory for their journey. Even if parents are in shock or denial or experiencing grief, they can still be supportive and not dismissive by saying, “Thank you for sharing that with me.”
Find the joy and find what connects you.
It can be easy to worry and agonize over a child who has shared that they identify as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community with their parents. The what-ifs can rob you of the joy and celebration of a child being able to express and be who they truly are. It’s important to not only accept but celebrate and find the joy in what the child has shared with you.
Some parents really aren’t ready to celebrate, or even to educate themselves on what it means to have a child that is a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. The worry and grief may be all-consuming. And that’s okay. That may be part of the parent’s journey. What I encourage parents to do is find what unites and connects their family and focus on that. What do they and the child have in common or like to do together for fun? How can they continue to make memories and have a relationship even as they both go on separate journeys?
Wondering a good way to respond when a child shares about their gender identity or sexual orientation? Consider something like this:
Thank you so much for sharing that with me and trusting me with that information. (If you don’t know what they’ve shared, consider: I don’t know what that means, but I am going to look it up. If you’d like to tell me what it means to you, I’d love to hear. But I can also read about it online to learn more.)
Is there anything else you want to talk about with this, or did you just want to tell me?
For some individuals, it’s important to just let loved ones know and they may not want to talk more. For others, they may want to have a conversation. Just follow their lead.
I have seen incredible beauty in parents who have worked hard to travel through the grief and come out on the other side in a way that is supportive, accepting and loving. I know that it is possible for all families to experience this joy. It is my hope that all parents and children can be patient and compassionate to each other as they walk through this experience and find the joy on the other side.