*NOTE this article is directed towards heterosexual, cis-gender (identify as the gender they were assigned at birth) parents.
**The pronoun ‘their’ is used to disguise gender indentity in the following scenario. PLEASE NOTE that the following scenario is not meant to represent any particular persons or situations.
You’re in the kitchen putting together lunches for the next day. Your spouse is sitting at the table working on their computer. You’re tired and suddenly remember that the credit card payment is due today. One more thing to do before you can go to bed. Tomorrow is a crazy day and you hope you have the energy to get through everything on your list. You’re worried about an upcoming parent teacher meeting for your youngest child whose report card was pretty concerning. You think, “at least I don’t have to worry about Jamie, such a reliable kid, always conscientious.”
Jamie- Mom, Dad, can I talk to you?
You [Hearing some emotion in Jamie’s voice, you stop what you’re doing immediately.] – Of course honey, what’s up?
Your partner – Have a seat, kiddo.
Jamie – [Starting to tear up] I don’t know how to say this. [Choking up, unable to talk]
You [now you’re really concerned, mind racing -“What if Jamie’s in trouble, did they do something stupid? But no, that’s not like Jamie. Is there a pregnancy? but you say]– It’s ok, you know you can talk to us about anything.
Jamie- It’s just… I want to believe you but I’m scared.
You – now you’re panicking – what could be so awful that Jamie would be scared to tell you? Jamie’s always lived by the book.
Your partner says – Jamie, we love you no matter what. Nothing can change that.
Jamie- quietly crying.
Jamie [head down] – I’m gay.
You look at your partner, eyes wide. You did not see this coming. Jamie has never dated but never showed any particular signs of being gay as far as you can tell. All you can do is let out an “oooh.” You manage to put your hand on Jamie’s back, it feels like there’s a rushing in your ears, you don’t know what to think, what to say, how to feel. Jamie looks up, tear stained face, and sees the stunned look on your face.
Jamie – I’m sorry
You – No, no. It’s okay. I just need a bit to take this in. I’m not sure what to say.
Jamie still looks fearful.
Your partner looks like they’ve been hit by a truck and does not respond to your looks or to Jamie.
You – Just give us a bit of time to get used to this, okay?
Jamie – Okay.
Jamie leaves the room. You both sit in silence.
END OF SCENE 1
I don’t think many parents would say that the only measure of parental success is the creation of a clone of themselves, but sometimes we act that way. When a child doesn’t like sports or would rather be a lawyer than a farmer. Or, when a child does not like the taste of grandma’s traditional dish, despite the fact that it was handed down through the generations and is a tie to the families ethnic group, parents will sometimes respond with outrage. “How could they!?! After all we’ve sacrificed!” as if our children’s discoveries about a unique aspect of themselves is somehow an act of rebellion against us.
The above scenario with Jamie and parents might sound like a pretty good one to many parents imaging their own reaction to their child ‘coming out.’ But imagine Jamie’s perspective. Jamie’s parents seem to be supportive and open and are understandably surprised. They were not negative or harsh with Jamie. But Jamie may have looked to them for their primary emotional support up until this point. Jamie fears the loss of their love.
Losing the love of one’s parents is probably the greatest fear any child could have and for good reason. The loss of love can be detrimental on an emotional, psychological and even physical level as parents often control housing, food, etc.
Anything less than full acceptance and understanding can be scary for Jamie who has likely gone over this scenario repeatedly before risking the conversation, measuring pros and cons. Kids and teens are very black and white, if something is not inequivacally good it can feel inequivically bad.
Most heterosexual, cis-gender parents don’t spend much time imagining the possibility that their child’s sexuality may be different from their own. This is a mistake.
I met with Melanie Leslie, a counsellor at the Rainbow Resource Centre to talk about how parents can support their children’s sexual and gender identity development, even before a child informs them of their sexual orientation.
Melanie meets with parents and their kids about these kinds of things all the time. She notes that parents who have strong beliefs about sexuality and gender identities that are not heterosexual or cis-gender, may find themselves in a crisis. These parents will wonder how they can stay true to their own beliefs and still keep a good relationships with their child. Melanie states that the most important thing is not to deny your feelings, or beliefs, or fears, but to focus on your relationship with your child. The best way to do this is to take the time to prepare in advance.
Melanie spoke about ways to help our kids risk confiding in us about their own self-discoveries. She states that sometimes well-meaning parents, never guessing that they might be talking about their own children, will make off handed comments implying that being LGBT2SQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Two Spirited, Queer and more is fine for others but not welcomed within the family. Melanie notes,
“You don’t have be an expert in all things LGBT2SQ+ to show support to your child, you only have to be an expert in your child.”
The way to do this is to allow them to mentor you into this role, as they actually have most of the information about themselves. While it can be humbling to learn from your child it is actually a natural aspect of a healthy parent child relationship. This requires the parent to listen and not only lecture, particularly when it comes to a child’s identity. When parents can model non-judgmental curiosity, stumbling on terms, or language, or asking ‘dumb’ questions are less likely to have negative impacts.
Kids recognize genuine interest and honesty and care much more about that using the right language.
This is why doing your own processing ahead of time is so important. The moment your child chooses to reveal this precious part of who they are with you is about your child. It is not about you. Imagine the kinds of things your children may reveal about themselves, to you, as they grow older and consider your own believes about these things and how you’d like to be able to respond if this were to happen. Hoping that your child will turn out ‘just like you’ is not adequate preparation.
You owe it to your children to face your fears before they come to you to reveal a new aspect of themselves. Don’t make them deal with the burden of your shock at a time that they need your support the most.
The fact that your child may share your values and religious beliefs does not inoculate them against aspects of themselves that may not align with these. These beliefs may, however, impact their willingness to share with you or their willingness to acknowledge these differences in themselves. From a mental health standpoint, ignoring, denying, shaming or pushing down aspects of ones’ own identity is a recipe for disaster for kids’ mental health. This is not a sustainable strategy but one that many youth choose instead of risking the loss of relationship.
Melanie spoke about Author and Physician Gabor Maté* who writes about attachment needs of children. He states that all humans need belonging and authentic self-expression. Kids will often sacrifice authentic self-expression for the sake of belonging in a family or in the community at large. Depending on the level of conformity, this may not be psychologically sustainable and may be responsible for the distress many young people find themselves in when they feel that there no space for authenticity. The other possible outcome Dr. Maté talks about is that kids can seek attachment and belonging from their peers, who are not equipped with enough emotional maturity or life experience to support a child’s development.
“Parents need to have faith that both authenticity and acceptance are possible both within the family and society and support authentic expression while educating kids on healthy boundaries.”
Having good boundaries is a little like the creative process that many artists go through:
– An artist may begin the creative process by observing how others use a particular medium to express themselves.
– Then they might out various mediums, copying others before settling on their own expression. Initially they might not show their work to anyone for a time until they feel confident in it.
– At this point, they might bring it a supportive person/mentor for a first look.
– Slowly they might share their work with others, taking into consideration how helpful the perspectives of these others will be and how trustworthy their opinions are.
– At some point an artist may go public, aware that there will always be those who don’t like their particular means of expression, for whatever reason, but secure in the knowledge that what they’ve created is good, valuable and worth sharing.
In the context of ‘coming out’ a parent might caution a child against ’coming out’ to their entire high school over the intercom, during morning announcements on their first day of school, before telling their close friends or family. Instead, they might but suggest instead that they start by choosing one or two people the child is close to and cares about and whom have shown that they are likely to be supportive of the child’s identity as a place to start.
Melanie states that parents often assume the worst, no matter what the scenario, and believe that the world is too dangerous for their child.
This is a time for hope, not fear, for curiosity, not judgment.
The world can be cruel and dangerous but that is not all it is. It is also filled with warmth, light and beauty and it is your job to look for that and to show it to your child. You can be an example of warmth, light and beauty but it does not end with you.
Many parents assume that their child will need counseling when they ‘come out.’ They assume that there is an internal conflict within the child and fear that matches their own. Making assumptions about your child’s feelings is a mistake. Owning your own feelings and processing them, sometimes with the help of a counselor is important. Ask your child how they are feeling about things and take them at their word unless there is large evidence to the contrary (See Are the Kids Okay?).
Melanie notes that once you’ve done the work of imagining various scenarios regarding your child’s sexual or gender identity and have worked through your own feelings. Consider what response you’d like to give your child to ensure that your child knows that you are a safe person to confide in, no matter who they love or how they identify. You can start doing this at any point, even if your child never identifies as different from you.
Here are some ways to do this:
- Ensure that you verbalize your thoughts about media that you consume as a family which addresses these things in either positive or negative ways.
- You may contact your child’s school to find out what kind of policies they have around inclusion of LGBT2SQ+ students and talk about this to your child. You may choose to advocate for better policies, if they need improving, for your own child’s sake, but also for the sake of other children, some of whom may be very important to your child.
Melanie notes that people can ‘come out’ at all ages, not just as teens. Melanie states that even if your family member does not identify as a member of the LGBT2SQ+ community, they may fall in love with someone from this community or have friends within this community. In these cases your child may want to invite someone they care about to family events or to become part of the family and be seeking your acceptance of this person.
- Learn more about the LGBT2SQ+ community and issues:
1. The number one thing parents should be aware of is the sexual identity and gender identity are two completely different things and do not necessarily intersect. This means that a person who identifies as female, but was assigned male at birth may or may not be attracted to men or women or other genders.
2. Melanie notes that the fact that your son was seen kissing another boy, does not necessarily mean that he is gay. It might mean that, or it might mean that he is bi-sexual and it might not mean anything at all. It might just be something he felt like doing in that moment. It’s best to ask him what it means to him before assuming. The same applies to gender expression. How a child chooses to dress or express themselves does not necessarily tell you about how they identity, in terms of gender. Again, it is important to ask and not assume.
3. For resources on LGBT2SQ+ youth, you might ask your kids what they know about already and check out what they’ve been looking at.
4. Melanie also suggests checking out www.everyoneisgay.com another site she recommends is http://www.genderspectrum.org which contains worksheets and templates. Melanie notes the public library has a lot of resources and the Rainbow Resource Centre also has a library which is open to the public. Melanie notes that even reading novels about LGBT2SQ+ characters can provide insight and build empathy.
Raising LGBT2SQ+ kids involves understanding the unique challenges these kids will face but does not mean that all previous parenting knowledge is irrelevant. In the area of dating the same rules based on self-respect, respect for others, curfews, whether bedroom doors remain open, etc. are all still relevant.
We can all do better for LGBT2SQ+ youth by creating supportive families and a society that embraces diversity.
Children are gifts that will continue to bring many wonderful surprises throughout their lifetimes. Treasuring those gifts is our job.
*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.
Also check out My Journey with Homophobia