It happens. Out of the blue, your child comes out to you. What do you do? Maybe your first reaction is shock, fear, dread, shame, or for others, maybe pride in your child's courage. But what will you say? How you respond initially and over time may in large part determine how your child will adjust and develop identity and sense of safety in the home.
Why is your reaction so important to your child? LGBTQ youth are at higher risk for suicide than other youth, and one of the most important factors that protect LGBTQ youth from suicide is having a family that is supportive and affirming. Having a home in which they don't experience discrimination can make a world of difference to LGBTQ children.
But what does it mean to be "affirming" when raising LGBTQ children?
- Expressing acceptance and love. Letting your child know that you accept them and love them no matter their gender or sexual identity.
- Creating a "safe" home environment. Ask your child if he/she/they would like the rest of the family to know, and whether you or your child will be the one to share it. If you have the go ahead, share your child's identity with family. Set some guidelines around how they can talk about it in front of your child (be respectful, avoid derogatory names, etc.). This will support your child in exploring his/her/their identity without fear of rejection, and will also create a safe haven for your child if he/she/they experience(s) any bullying or negative reactions outside of the home. If someone makes a derogatory comment toward or about your child in front of you or your child, address it right away by letting the person know that it isn't okay to speak that way. Standing up for your child also communicates that you are in full support.
- Allowing children to express themselves through preferred clothing and toys. Forcing your children to fit into a socially-acceptable box of narrow behaviors, clothing, and toys according to birth gender is not affirming. Instead, it continues a legacy of rigid gender norms that limit personal expression, and sends your children the message that they won't be accepted unconditionally. Understandably, some parents are concerned about how other children/parents will perceive their child, so it is important for parents to be aware of their own feelings and beliefs regarding having a child who may be perceived as different. Ultimately, this is the parent's issue, not the child's. Even when children don't identify as LGBTQ, simple actions like not allowing a male child to have a lunchbox that he wants because it has Cinderella on it may say more about the parent's desire to keep their child "in line" than it says about the child's gender identity. Generally, our experience of gender falls on a spectrum (female to male, and everything in between). Thus, forcing children to fit into a narrow range of "gender-appropriate" activities and clothing doesn't allow them to experience all aspects of their identity safely, and encourages them to reject parts of their personality. In large part, this type of thinking is why culturally, we have rigid expectations of how men and women should behave as adults and punish those who fall outside of the norm via shaming (i.e. men who show emotion are "weak," women who are strong are seen as "ball-busting," etc.). Parents can support healthier perspectives on toys and activities by allowing children to explore the activities that appeal to them rather than restricting them based on gender expectations.
- If you don't always know what to say, that's okay! This is a good rule of thumb for any issue that arises with anyone, not just coming out. You can let your child know that you need some time to reflect on what has been said. You are never required to come up with all of the "right" answers right away, so don't pressure yourself to do so if you need to think about it and come back to it. Just make sure that you do come back to it and don't avoid it!
- Allow for some flexibility over time. Your child is exploring aspects of identity, and there may be some changes. This is not to say that gender and sexuality are wholly changeable, but for a small percentage of folks, there may be some shifts over time. Some parents take this to mean that their child is going through a "phase," but that thinking can be dangerous and is often used an excuse to deny a child's LGBTQ identity altogether. Let's be clear: for the majority of people, sexuality and/or gender is not something that will change. However, for a small percentage, there will be some exploration and fluidity that is natural until one's gender/sexual identity is more fully-formed. And that's okay! Allow your child to explore freely and trust that his/her/their gender and sexual identity will be clear over time. Life is a process of self-discovery!
In sum, historically in Western culture, reactions to coming out have been met with rejection, denial, and/or in some extreme cases, disowning one's child. These reactions are psychologically damaging to LGBTQ children, and is one of the reasons LGBTQ youth/young adults have historically faced higher rates of homelessness, drug use, and suicide attempts. As parents, you have a uniquely strong bond with your children that may influence them to explore aspects of identity safely rather than shutting them down. The aforementioned tips will support a more welcoming home for your LGBTQ child.
If you'd like to learn more or seek consultation services regarding gender/sexual identity-affirming parenting for your child, feel free to contact Dr. Seay at 707-816-0963 to learn more.