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How Will You Respond When Your Teen Says 'I'm Gay'?

Because it matters how you respond. Believe me.

Imagine your child at the age of 15.  Imagine that they’ve become withdrawn and moody.  You’re not sure why or what’s happened but as a parent you know that something is amiss with your child.  You start to probe, like any parent would, and you get a typical response, “Nothing”.

But you can feel that something’s wrong…you can feel it.  So you persist.

And your persistence pays off.  Your child finally opens up to what’s going on in their life.

This is a scenario played out in almost every home that houses a teenager.  Being a teen is a difficult transition and how we parents help them (or not) plays a big part of that transition.

Now go back to the story…imagine sitting on the couch with your teen as they begin to open up about what’s been the problem.  You’re sitting there expectantly as they take a deep breath and say,

“Mom/Dad, I am (maybe/thinking/confused) that I am (maybe/thinking/confused)….gay.”

Right then!  What was your first thought?  What was the first thing that ran through your mind when you got to the end of that sentence?  Now, the real question is, what do you do with that?

If we’re talking percentages this probably won’t happen in your home.  Gallup reported that last year demographer Gary Gates released a review of population-based surveys on the topic, estimating that 3.5% of adults in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, with bisexuals making up a slight majority of that figure.  So this post and its topic may never touch your life.

But what if?  What if your teen did come home and have this discussion with you?  What would you say or do?  Do you have any idea how you would respond?  Because it matters how you respond.  Believe me.

This is a high intensity moment in anyone’s life much less that of a teenager.  And if your teenager is either going through some sexual confusion or is gay, your response to their coming out or opening up to you will be paramount to the relationship going forward in a positive way.

I have never dealt with this issue first hand.  I have, however, sat with many teens and parents talking through this issue.  I have also talked with some friends who came out to their families over the years and have picked up some invaluable lessons on what to do and almost more importantly not to do.  I would like to share them with you here.

Remember you are talking to your child

At the moment your son or daughter comes to you with this information remember we’re not talking about a political party platform or a sermon, it is your child.  For them to trust you enough to open up about something that many find difficult to do so is a good thing.  Regardless of what you think about this issue, at this moment it is about you and your baby girl/boy.

Keep those lines of communication open. 

Don’t Preach

As parents we (and when I say “we” I really mean “me”) tend to lecture or preach.  I do it because I want my kids to understand the why behind something and at some point in that loving explanation I somehow find a soapbox to get on and I firmly root myself there for an extended period of time.  And usually about a 1/3 into my homily my daughter is in some far away dream land where I do not exist.

This moment is not the time for a lecture or sermon.  Now is a time of listening and reflection.  Be careful of what you say and how you say it.  Something that might sound loving in your mind may come out as hurtful or hateful when said out loud.  Measure your words carefully.

I can imagine that there are few discussions where someone is more vulnerable or more exposed than this conversation.  And you can either speak love into this moment or build walls.  How you respond will determine the “what next”.

Reassure your child

Your feelings on this topic don’t include whether you love your son/daughter or not.  That thought should never enter a parents mind!  EVER!

We’ve all heard horror stories of a person coming out to their family only to be completely rejected and basically shunned.  In my humble opinion, there are few things in life that I would categorize as more evil or wrong than someone rejecting their own children!

Make sure that they know you love them!  If they hear nothing else in the conversation this should be the one thing they do hear.  They should walk away knowing that your love has not changed even an inkling.

And just a side note here…it shouldn’t take your child coming out to you for them to know that.  They should know this all the time!  You can never say “I love you” too much.

Your values are still your values

This is where we can run into some troubles.  Many parents in today’s culture may not mind if their child comes out gay but many parents would and do care.  So if you’re a parent that would be upset by this news then how do you guide with your values in a way that doesn’t ostracize your child?

  • Remember the Golden Rule?  Put yourself in your child’s shoes.  How would you want someone to respond to you?  Then do just that!
  • If your initial response is anger…just slow your roll.  Take a deep breath and respond calmly.
  • Talk with a trusted friend or a mentor about your feelings.  Find a support group to help you navigate through those feelings.
  • Your child is still your child.  And just like when they were little and you were angry about something they did you still loved them.  It’s no different now.
  • You will make mistakes.  Don’t beat yourself up.  You’re not perfect and no one expects you to be.
  • Apologize when you need to do.  Admit you are wrong when you are wrong.
  • Continue to parent your child with the values you hold as true.  They are still your child and you are still their parent.

Protect your child

People can be mean.  You know it and I know it.  And kids take it to the nth degree.  With the prevalence of online communication teens have gotten even more so.  If you’ve ever been online you know that the vitriol that is spewed from some people is borderline illegal.

Your child will face new obstacles at school.  Make sure that you are continuing the conversation and keep on top of any bullying that might take place.  Many students will target LGBTQ kids for bullying.  And as such the suicide rate can be much higher than for students who are straight.

If this happens react immediately.  Do not chalk it up to kids being kids.  I’m not being dramatic when I say that your child’s life might depend on it.

There is even an entire day set aside to bring awareness to this issue: Day of Silence.   You can see what they do and how they are helping to get the message out there that bullying is NEVER the answer.  You can see their site at www.dayofsilence.org.

This is by no means a complete list.  You may think of other things or have experienced this first hand and have some great advice.  We would love to hear it!  So please share.  But knowing that this will be posted on the internet with an open comment section I would ask that people be respectful!  We can disagree on things and do so in a civil manner.  I would ask that we leave out religious discussions here.  This post is not about whether homosexuality is wrong or right this post is about how we, as parents, respond lovingly to our children if they come out to us.  So if you are going to comment, please remember what we are and are not talking about.

Chuck Anziulewicz September 29, 2012 at 12:25 PM
Thank you for your diplomatic and evenhanded approach. There is nothing in Straight (i.e. heterosexual) experience that is analogous to "coming out." For Gay young people, there is no way to test the waters; it's simply not possible to come ask a parent, "How would you feel if I was Gay?" .... and if the parent responded negatively, to simply say, "Oh, well never mind, then." And if you are a parent with young children, ask yourself: If one of your children was Gay, would you WANT to know?
F Young September 29, 2012 at 04:48 PM
"Do you have any idea how you would respond? Because it matters how you respond. Believe me." So true. Indeed, learning how to respond if your child comes out is one of those parenting skills that could save a life, like knowing the Heimlich Maneuver or CPR. The right response is to immediately say that you love them and that won't change. If you have to, fake it. Convincingly. Just ask yourself whether you would prefer your child dead or alive. If the answer is alive, then you love your child to some degree. Say what you need to keep them alive. While it’s grossly unfair to expect immediate, unconditional acceptance from the parent, the fact is that the right response can save a child’s life. In one case, a child apparently took his life in part because the parent's response wasn't immediate and unconditional. The parent became distant because they needed time to adjust, which the child misinterpreted as rejection. The child eventually killed himself, even though the parent never rejected him. Alternately, your child may leave home and live on the street, which is only slightly less dangerous than a suicide attempt. Think about it. You've had countless situations where your child showed you a drawing or something they made. You knew they were seeking acceptance and encouragement, and you responded accordingly instead of criticising. Same thing when your spouse asks you if you love them or if they're fat. See, you’ve been doing it all along.
F Young September 29, 2012 at 04:53 PM
"For Gay young people, there is no way to test the waters; it's simply not possible to come ask a parent, "How would you feel if I was Gay?" Actually, there is a way, indirectly, and kids do it commonly. Oftentimes, LGBTQ kids who have not come out are carefully noting and remembering every clue indicating their parents (and friends) opinion on LGBT issues, as a means of estimating whether they would accept them or reject them if they came out. This is a very critical skill for LGBTQ kids. Newscasts are a perfect opportunity for parents to discreetly signal their acceptance in advance, just in case. It could shorten the suicide-prone period when a child knows their sexual orientation, but hasn't told anyone.
F Young September 29, 2012 at 05:00 PM
Here are a few extra thoughts: Kids may come out a lot earlier than you think. A few are coming out at ages 5 and 6 now. Kids may not know for sure before their sexual attraction starts (at age 10, on average), but a lot of adult gays say that knew in early primary school. Elementary kids increasingly know what the word "gay" means; they hear it on Glee and every day in the schoolyard. Effeminacy in boys and tomboyism in girls may be signs of homosexuality, but they are not conclusive. In some cases, they are a sign of transgenderism, but again they are not conclusive. It's not the parents’ fault. Sexual orientation can't be changed through therapy. Don't even think about damaging, expensive and ineffective ex-gay therapy. The point of therapy should be to accept homosexuality and learn to make the best of it. Among women, it seems that sexual orientation may slowly evolve (or maybe women are more bisexual than men). For men, bisexuality seems to be less common, and their sexual orientation doesn't change (except that bisexuals may move along a bit between the two extremes). The suicide rate for bisexual persons is higher than for gays and lesbians. A lot more youths are aware of transgenderism and may wonder about their gender identity. The issues faced by transgenders, such as suicide, bullying and homelessness, are much more serious than for gays and lesbians, unfortunately. A sex change is an option.

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