Recently, a friend told me that he feels it’s much easier for gay teens to come out to their parents now than it was fifteen years ago when he came out to his parents.
“However”, he went on, “most ‘coming out’ literature still does ignore the fact that it’s about sex. Any time you come out, you’re also saying what genitals you’re into...and we all know, sex talks of any variety with parents are f--ing awkward.”
This conversation got me thinking about clients I've worked with over the years that have come out to their parents. There are some families in which the ‘coming out’ conversation is the first and last discussion of the child’s sexual identity, and other families in which it’s a jumping off point for an ongoing dialogue.
According to current statistics, between five and twenty percent of people identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. If you’re a parent of a gay teen that recently came out, you are probably working through a huge variety of emotions right now from shock to grief to pride, all of which are understandable and expected, even if you have had strong suspicions for some time.
You may also have a seemingly endless list of unanswered questions that you’re not sure how to broach and very real fears about how this could negatively affect him as he navigates a society where he will encounter people that are unhappy about his sexuality.
At the same time as these questions are running through your head, your teen is likely going through some inner-turmoil as well. She is coming to terms with her own sexuality, which is difficult enough for any teen, but especially difficult when it carries the weight of potential rejection by the most important people in her life.
The “coming out” conversation can be tough for all parties involved, but the awkwardness is the very reason it shouldn’t end there. An ongoing dialogue is essential to keeping the lines of communication and making sure your teen gets the support he or she needs.
Here are some open-ended questions that can keep the dialogue going past the first conversation:
What are the best ways for me to support you right now? Understand that your teen may or may not be able to articulate concrete ways that she needs your positive involvement right now, and that’s okay. This question is also an important statement that conveys your love for him and your desire to be there for him on whatever terms are most helpful. It is our job as parents to actively seek out ways to reinforce that we want our children to be who they really are at their most authentic
What’s been happening in your life that made you decide to come out now? As my friend pointed out, telling a parent that you’re gay is always going to be awkward because you’re telling your parent not only who you are emotionally attracted to, but also what you’re sexually attracted to.
Any conversation with parents about a sexual topic is never going to be easy. But this question can also be a jumping off point for a broader look at how your teen feels about communicating with you on important topics in general.
3. Who is supporting you and what has it been like for you at school? Unfortunately, bullying of LGBT teens is still rampant in schools and online. Coming out to friends can be even more difficult than coming out to family because a peer group is such a crucial part of a teen’s identity. It’s important to know what’s happening at school while your teen processes what’s going on.
Is he or she joining the Gay/Straight Alliance and being met with complete acceptance from friends or avoiding entire groups of people for fear of being harassed? Oftentimes it’s some combination of both. LGBT teens are at increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and feeling isolated or experiencing violence at school can be major catalysts.
By having a good handle on your child’s peer situation, you will know if intervention such as getting the school involved or seeking the help of a therapist that can provide additional support.
4. Would you feel comfortable introducing me to a boyfriend/girlfriend? This is potentially awkward situation that can be made less awkward by discussing it way before it happens. It’s okay to be real and admit to yourself if there is some part of that scenario that might make you uncomfortable.
But like any relationship gay or straight, if a person goes into it with guilt and shame, not feeling that who they are is okay with their parents, the relationship can be filled with guilt and shame as well. That is a recipe for a dysfunctional relationship that no parent wants for their child.
5. What’s been making you proud of yourself lately? In the end, pride is about feeling good about who you are at your core, and getting your teen thinking and talking about what she feels are her best qualities and achievements is a surefire way to help nurture that feeling.
Being gay is one aspect of who your teen is as a whole authentic person. It’s a piece of her identity, but not the entirety of how she sees herself. It’s important to communicate that you still see your child as a whole person too and that you are proud because she’s your daughter, not in spite of the fact that she’s gay.
Coming out is a time of massive change and growth for a gay teen, and when one family member changes, the family dynamic can change too, leading to some growing pains. Keep in mind that it’s normal for those growing pains to happen, but that keeping the dialogue going can help you get through it together. No matter what, the message you want to convey is the same as it’s always been: that your love has always been and will always be unconditional.