According to the nonprofit LGBTQ+ youth advocacy organization The Trevor Project, nationally representative data shows that 10.5 percent of 13-18 year old youth identify as LGBTQ. That means parents in the United States have a more than 1 in 10 chance of parenting a child who has come out, or intends to come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or questioning. So it seems clear: Parents need to be prepared to navigate the complexities of sexual orientation and gender identity.
When it comes to a child coming out, it’s no time for parents to wing it, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Kathryn Van Eck. “Early teens are very sensitive to lack of approval from adults,” she says. That sensitivity is something she’s observed in practice overseeing a clinic at Kennedy Krieger Institute that provides mental health care for transgender youth. “We don’t want to discourage kids in this very fragile process of sharing who they are as a person by communicating rejection or something that could be interpreted as rejection.”
In fact, Van Eck encourages parents to engage in broad acceptance — even for the youngest children seeking to express expansive gender and sexual identities. Because the child development research is very clear that when children are forced to align with a gender that does not match their identity, they suffer adverse psychological effects. “If we let children express themselves in a way that aligns with how they are experiencing their gender or sexual orientation, their outcomes, from a mental health perspective, are going to be so much healthier,” she says.
So how should parents react to a child coming out as part of the LGBTQ+ community? Carefully, Van Eck suggests. Also, with an open heart, an open mind and a willingness to look at their own attitudes.
The tweens and teens are a vulnerable time for children. It’s a time when they are forging unique identities that make them individuals, separate from their family. That’s difficult enough as it is. But when the emerging identity is gender expansive or a diverse expression of sexuality, the feelings of vulnerability can increase.
Van Eck encourages parents to listen to their children before they talk or make assumptions. “Reserve any judgement or reaction that you might have until you’ve really heard how your child is thinking and feeling about things,” she says. “Take the time to put yourself in your child’s shoes. It takes a lot of courage.”
Parents want to protect their child’s inclination to talk about how their identity is emerging. Not only does it foster a greater sense of self-awareness from a child, it keeps parents in the loop. Reacting before listening can close off an important discourse.
When a child comes out, parents should take time to monitor their own reactions: Are they frightened? Skeptical? Worried? Angry? Where are these emotions coming from? It’s far better for parents to observe these feelings before expressing them.
Sometimes the best reaction is to simply not react emotionally, Van Eck says. Because even if parents show nonchalance and shrug it off, “your child is going to interpret that as outright rejection of them.”
Van Eck acknowledges that some parents may be frightened because they remember the AIDS crisis, or the hate-crime killings of Matthew Shepard and Branden Teena. She suggests that before jumping into a mode of overprotection, parents should talk to children about the lived experiences among their peer group.
“Being sensitive to bullying and discrimination experiences that your kid is having is really important. But also trust them,” Van Eck says. “If you’re not seeing signs and symptoms of things going poorly for them and they’re telling you it’s okay, trust that’s the way things are for them. That’s a possibility now.”
Expect to Make Mistakes
Parents who are not steeped in the language of gender expansive communities or diverse expressions of sexuality may not know the right things to say. But it’s always a bit awkward to learn a new language. Expanding vocabulary and adopting new norms for a child’s chosen pronouns requires some practice. The important part is to make an effort.
“Use the name your child is saying they are using and the pronouns that fit them the best,” Van Eck says. “That’s going to do wonders for your relationship with your child. It’s going to affirm to them that you accept who they are as a person. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it, apologize and commit to your child to try and get it right the next time.”
Let Them Lead
Some parents might assume, right or wrong, that their child is gay or trans. Some might both assume and support their child, no matter how they choose to identify. In either case, parents should let the child lead and come out on their own terms and in their own time, should they choose to come out at all.
Parents who push a child to come out, or out their child to others, run the risk of alienating their child during a highly personal and vulnerable time. There is, in fact, the possibility of being too supportive. When parents lead the conversation, the child can no longer own or control their own identity.
“Parents can be an advocate and an ally, but that requires a lot of communication with your child about what their preferences are about how much of this they want to do themselves,” Van Eck says. “Don’t force them to move in a direction that you feel is best for them.”
Parents can telegraph their support prior to their child coming out by showing they value people with diverse sexual orientations and expansive genders. That can be as simple as speaking kindly about the LGBTQ+ community, making it a point to support LGBTQ+ causes and legislation, or simply having gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans friends.
Do Not Hesitate to Seek Help
While Van Eck works with children, she notes that many times she recommends therapy for parents. “Doing this with your child, you’re also being confronted with your own gender identity and expression,” she says. “And we all have a relationship with that and we all have gender. Taking some time and having someone you can talk to about that can be hugely helpful.”
She also encourages parents to reach out to LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, which can help them navigate their children’s changes. She recommends parents find local chapters of PFLAG, which helps parents of the LGBTQ+ community support one another and their children. They can also seek resources from advocacy groups like The Trevor Project, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and GLAAD.