Loving and Supporting your LGBTQIA+ Child
Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Hello, I want to provide a blog post that gives research-based advice on how to go about
supporting and loving your LGBTQIA+ child or family member. I would like to explain why
this support is essential. I also know that some folks have an honest struggle to show this love and support. We'll talk a little about that too.
No matter how you came across this post- whether you clicked directly, or another source directed you.
Even if you accidentally clicked on it, this post pertains to you. Whether you know it or not, you have a member of your distant or immediate family that identifies as
LGBTQIA+. How could I be so sure? A simple way to put it is that LGBTQIA+ consists of many sexual and gender minority classifications. These letters encompass a wide range and a large number of people. So large, that I confidently say to you that a person in your family identifies with one or more of these letters.
Less simply, sexuality is tough to categorize, and gender is not very straightforward either. The binaries of male/female and straight/gay (heterosexual/homosexual) are commonly used. However, there are many more classifications of a human that lie between these two categories of gender and sexual orientation. Another reason that these are hard to categorize is that sexual behavior is often not talked about openly. A lack of discussion discourages people from being aware, honest, and forthcoming in scientific studies. Also, there is a fair amount of information about behavior, but not a solid agreement about how to classify people. All of this makes it hard to explain the origins of sexual and gender orientation/identity. For me to try in a blog post is like trying to teach you about the ocean from the deck of a boat. I'd only get to explain surface level things. Since I am not able to delve into the depths of scientific literature about sexual/gender orientation/identity, I will just say that from my experience professionally and personally, you either know someone in your family or your child has a friend, that was born not-heterosexual (i.e., gay, lesbian, queer, bisexual, asexual) and or not-cisgender (i.e., they identify with a gender that does not correspond with their sex at birth).
How this person came to be born this way is for another blog post entirely. I want to divert from discussing how it is scientifically accepted that sexual orientation is not a choice nor is gender identity. I want to encourage you to consider that sexual and gender minority people exist, and they also exist as our youth and children. This consideration is most important because some of the people we are discussing cannot continue waiting to be accepted as real, normal, and natural. The next consideration is that this sexual minority and or transgender person will face a unique struggle that differs from the experiences of their non-gay or cisgender friends and family. This is true for them, whether they ever tell someone or not. If they keep who they are a secret, they wear a heavy burden of feeling different and disconnected. If they tell someone, they risk being rejected, made fun of, and treated differently. For the sake of this blog, it doesn't matter how this young person came to identify the way they do. Instead, it is more important to ask: How are we going to help this person with burden, fear, and safety? How do I go about loving and supporting my LGBTQIA child, or another young person?
I will tell you what I suggest. Furthermore, I will help answer the question that some readers might have. Why are my support and love important to my child? The answers to these questions lie in how we can impact our young people's levels of resilience.
Resilience is the ability someone has to keep going and do well when life hands them difficult things. For example, think about a child that is experiencing a school bully and a challenging math class. The resilient child will search for ways to deal with the bully and continue to try hard and study to get through the class. The less resilient child will struggle to find effective ways to deal with the bully. They may give up on completing homework for the class, skip school to avoid this stress, receive a low grade, and experience self-doubt, loneliness, fear, and shame.
Resilience is an important thing for children to develop! Unfortunately, sexual minority youth and transgender youth may struggle more to build resilience. There are a couple of reasons to know about this.
· Sexual minority and transgender youth have a larger number of difficult things that they have to manage than most kids their age. These children deal with not fitting in. They experience rejection/bullying based on how they walk or talk or dress. They hear negative messages about other people that look or act like them. And they are likely to suppress sexual and emotional attraction. These experiences pile on top of the everyday stress that children their age already experience. Young people that are not straight or not cisgender have more things to manage. This makes it more difficult to be resilient. It's hard to swim across a lake with large waves, and the swimmer will be unfairly judged if they are compared to someone swimming in calmer waters.
· Sexual minority and transgender youth have fewer resources to help them with the extra difficulties. Schools and religious establishments often provide extra-curricular activities and supportive groups of people. These places provide youth a foundation of support. During difficult times (remember the bully and the math class), youth have a supportive environment that they can go and not be rejected, made fun of, or treated differently. However, school and religious establishments have historically been unaware, unsupportive, or directly denying and punishing of sexual minority and transgender people. When youth don't have these kinds of resources, they just don't have the extra help needed to deal with the additional stress that life hands them. The swimmer in calmer waters will likely do even better getting across the lake if they have a coach and a lifeguard on duty than the person swimming in large waves with a coach who is unaware of why they aren't swimming as quickly as the others.
Sexual minority and transgender youth will demonstrate struggles differently and to varying degrees of severity. Sometimes, they may not show apparent struggle due to their internal and external coping methods. However, we know that because of the extra difficulties and fewer resources, these youth are at higher risk of being homeless, having depression, experimenting with drug/alcohol, suffering abuse, and dropping out of school. Sexual minority and transgender youth are more likely to struggle than heterosexual/straight and cisgender youth. It is not because there is something wrong with them. It is because they have more things to deal with and fewer tools with which to do the dealing!
So, what can we do about it?! We must help provide the tools and resources where we can, and we need to help lessen the extra difficulties they face. I firmly believe that this would improve our youth's ability to continue pushing through when times get tough.
My research has examined family support and sexual minority children and how it might influence resilience. In a 98 sexual/gender minority youth sample, I found that those who reported high levels of family support and were out (i.e., had told someone or everyone about their identity) showed higher levels of resilience than those who did not report high levels of family support. Another way to say this is: sexual minority youth may not receive the social benefits of being out to friends without family support. Family support plays a significant role in the resilience of LGBTQIA+ children 12-18 years old.
This is where you come in. "What do we do about it?!" My answer is to help your child feel supported in their sexual or gender identities. This can look like how you might support and love your children otherwise. Additionally, you want to include things about their sexual orientation and gender identity. (This first step may be difficult for some readers. That's okay! Keep reading. I talk about that too.)
· If your child has let you know that they feel different than others their age and being gay/lesbian/queer/girl/boy/genderqueer etc., don't ignore it. It may be useful for you to know that sometimes LGBTQIA people can remember feeling different from others their age, even in early childhood. This does not mean something is wrong with them! Sexual orientation and gender identity mean a lot more than just sexual behavior. It has to do more with how someone feels physically, mentally, and emotionally. If your child has voiced these feelings to you, it means that they trust you. Continue that trust by expressing an interest in what your child likes to do (hobbies, friends, music, academic interests, etc.), and encourage exploration of those things. You don't have to be interested in the same things. Just acknowledging their interests and being open to what they are saying to you goes a long way.
· It's okay not to know how to respond. Be kind, non-judgmental, and honest. I often find that people become uncomfortable when they don't know how to respond to their kids. That's okay. Your child wants to know that they have someone to come to that won't make them feel stupid, different, wrong, or broken. If you don't have anything to say once they've started talking, just reflect what you heard them say. That way, they know you were listening. Be honest about any appreciation you have for their honesty. If you need a brief moment to think, be honest about that too. After you have thought about it and don't feel so anxious to respond, you are more likely to come up with a response that you can tell them later. Do not ignore or avoid the conversation. That will send a message to your child of unacceptance, conditional love, and that you are not trustworthy.
Things to ask or say:
· "I love you no matter what you are interested in, who you want to date, or how you want to dress. I just want you to be happy and healthy."
· "What do you like most about your crush?"
· "Is there anything at school that you would like to try, but are worried about what others might say?"
· "Thank you for talking to me about (whatever they told you that was risky for them). It means the world to me that you trust me, and I want you to know you can always talk to me no matter what, and I'll be there."
· "Okay, so far, I've heard you say (reflect their words and statements to them). Have I got it?"… "Is there anything else?"
· "I love you. This is new to me, and I need some more time to think about it, and I will talk to you later about my thoughts. But right now, I am more interested in your thoughts."
(If you have strong reactions (e.g., anger, panic, disgust) to your child being honest with you about themselves, look below for more guidance and resources on navigating those emotions.)
More things that help show support:
· Have an environment of inclusion. Families often don't consider certain things in their conversations that would help encourage children's healthy exploration of their gender and sexual identities. My advice is to be mindful of messages on how boys and girls "are suppose" to dress, behave, act, walk, talk, etc. I'm not trying to tell you how to parent your children here. I just ask that you consider the messages you teach your children about what it means to be a boy or a girl. Also, know that an array of perfectly healthy behaviors exist for a person to show (e.g., boys playing with dolls, girls wanting to wear pants, etc.). And it doesn't mean that they are wrong. Being mindful of these messages will affect how comfortable a child feels to explore who they are. These messages will also influence whether or not they include you in that process. Youth do much better at school and home when they have adults at the school who overtly express support and acceptance.
· Be careful about the things you say. I am always surprised that LGBTQIA+ folks hear prejudicial and detrimental words about them from friends and family. People who are a racial minority aren't likely to receive negative comments from their family members about their race at the dinner table. But for LGBTQIA+ people, it is common to hear a family member say derogatory things about LGBTQIA +people. No matter our children's age, I advise being careful about how you talk about other people. We don't know if our child might identify with that person. Try and enforce non-judgmental conversations amongst family members. I have personally found it common for people to hide their identities and lives from their family because of something someone said 20 years ago at the dinner table.
· Try to find school-based or after-school-based resources for them. This can be a significant resource for your child. More and more schools are getting Gay-Straight Alliance groups that are student lead. There are also reputable organizations that provide a place for your child to go outside of school. These groups and organizations will help your child feel safe, normal, and encouraged to explore and develop their identities in a responsible way. This is much healthier than not exploring, or worse, exploring in secret with others that parents/guardians do not know. Here are a couple of places to get you started: https://gsanetwork.org, https://www.outyouth.org. You can search your surrounding areas to try and find a reputable place for your child. Youth that don't feel or identify as most others their age perform better in schools with groups or clubs where people like them can go and be.
· Make sure that you do what you can to help them be happy and healthy. Okay, I struggled with whether or not to add this point. I said it above, and I'll say it here: I do not want to tell you how to parent your child. You are the best person for your child. I would like to help you do the best you can at deciding how you wish to parent. And I need to tell you; there are very happy and healthy people that are gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, and transgender. You do not have to be familiar with all of these terms. My point is that if your child feels different from others or identifies as one of these terms, they don't need correction. So, my advice is to be the best parent/guardian you can be. If you don't know something, learn about it. If you are curious, ask questions. When your child misbehaves, provide guidance, rules, and boundaries. When your child feels alone, love them, and hold them close. I hope to give you some basics to help you know what to do during those moments. It is okay not to be a perfect parent/guardian, as long as we strive to improve our best. It is not okay to ignore issues, shame, disregard, and it is not okay to be harmful or abusive.
But what if it's not that easy for me?
In my family therapy practice and my personal life, I have found it common for people to struggle with their child being gay, lesbian, queer, or transgender. Can I tell you something? As a gay man that was once a gay child: it's okay. Let me validate that it is okay to be surprised. It is okay to be scared for your child. It is okay not to know what to say. It is okay not always to respond like you "should". And it is okay to be uncomfortable with what it means for your child to be something other than what you expected them to be. You got this. We just have to do the best we can. My guess is that by reading this, you're interested in doing the best you can. My advice to you is to consider a few things as you continue to figure it all out. You do not have to agree with what I say below. I just ask that you consider that what I'm sharing with you is based on experience and scientific study.
· Sexual orientation/identity is believed to be assigned in utero or very shortly after birth. The child does not choose this. There has been scientific study on changing this orientation, but no credible evidence exists that this orientation can change. Furthermore, it is widely accepted by mental health professionals that attempting to change a child's sexual orientation and or gender identity is unethical and inhumane. It risks causing long term harm to that child.
· Discovering who we are inside and out is a normal part of all human development. If your child feels they may fall in the LGBTQIA+ categories, it is a perfectly normal process for them to explore, discover, and develop their identities. Kids need their parents or guardians to help guide them through this process. Sometimes they don't know how they identify until they sort out who they are on the inside. All people share this experience of self-exploration. If someone has the support, safety, and environment to do so, they will develop their identities securely and productively.
· Your child did not choose their gender identity. Their gender identity may be different than the combination of chromosomes with which they were born. For some, the identity of being a man, woman, boy, girl agrees with the combination of XY chromosomes, but some do not. Whatever their identity is, it is for your child to figure out, even if they struggle to explain it. You may find it productive to help your child explore who they are, what they like to wear, the name they want to go by, and the pronouns (e.g., he/she/they) that they prefer.
· It is okay to feel a loss that your child will not grow up to be what you have always pictured in your head. This is a hard one for families. I'm not sure that parents can help but to fantasize about the people their children will become. We often don't think to include things like gay/lesbian/transgender/bisexual/asexual into those fantasies. And when the day comes that your child gives you something that disagrees with that fantasy, it might take a little effort to adjust. Keep in mind that your child is the same person they always were; you just now know a little more about them. They will still need you. I promise a part of them will always want your love and support to help them be happy and healthy. Letting go of your fantasy of them and moving toward accepting and encouraging them can have great benefits on your relationship together and their well-being.
· Frequently, the culture and belief system of parents/family makes it difficult to love, accept, support, and encourage their LGBTQIA+ child. If you find that these things interfere with your ability to have the relationship you desire or provide the love and support you intend, consider talking to someone about it. Honestly, I don't think I've met a single family member or LGBTQIA+ person (along with myself) who hasn't struggled with this in some way.
You might find it helpful to:
· Find a trustworthy friend who has already been through what you are experiencing and is doing well. They may be able to give you some support.
· Consult community resources such as a local chapter of PFLAG. That's for parents and friends of lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, and transgender people. Do you honestly think that every one of them jumped for joy when their child told them about being LGBTQIA+? Probably not. And your local chapter http://www.pflag.org/find-a-chapterprobably has someone who knows exactly how you feel. Can't find a chapter? That's okay. They are online as well as http://www.pflag.org/needsupport.Find a therapist or a counselor. Be careful, though. You want someone who can help you be happy and healthy to influence satisfied and healthy children. For that reason, and based on my research and experience, I do not advise seeking professional help to assist you in changing your child's sexual/gender identity. I understand this to be ineffective and destructive for families. Instead, find a counselor who is knowledgeable of the current research and has a good track record of how to help families be happy, healthy, and productive. If you don't know, ask the therapist/counselor what they could do to help. Go with one that you feel comfortable with to guide you and your family.
· Keep checking back with wwwdrcodyheath.com for advice and support throughout your journey.
My very best to you all. Thank you for letting me share this with you. It means a great deal to me to be able to provide my experiences to be helpful to others.