Maybe your son has come out as gay or transgender. Maybe your daughter has revealed she’s lesbian or bisexual. And maybe you’re not sure how to process the news or what to do next.
One thing’s for sure: You love your child more than anything and only want the best for them—and that includes their emotional and mental health.
“Sometimes, it can be really hard for parents to accept,” says David Huebner, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of prevention and community health at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. “Not because they don’t care, but because they care so much that they react out of concern and fear.”
There’s a lot to be worried about. In a survey of almost 26,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) young people, 71 percent reported feeling sad or hopeless for at least two weeks in the past year, according to a survey by the Trevor Project.
Nearly 40 percent seriously considered suicide, and 20 percent experienced physical harm or abuse.
But there’s good news: Your love and support can make a positive, long-lasting difference in your child’s life. “The decisions you make as parents right now have the power to change your child’s future,” Dr. Huebner says. “Maintain your relationship with your child. You have the power to help them thrive.”
Here are five steps you can take to support your child.
Step #1: Lead with Love
It seems simple—after all, loving your child is something you’re really good at. But if you’re feeling more apprehensive than thrilled, that’s OK.
“No matter what, don’t stop hugging them or being proud of them or being concerned about them,” says Dr. Huebner, who helped create Lead with Love, a short film for parents whose child has come out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. “Find ways to increase your connection and show affection.”
Remember, gay or straight, this is the same kid you’ve loved since they were a baby. “No single quality defines any human,” says Amy Edgar, APRN, a nurse practitioner and founder of the Children’s Integrated Center for Success in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“There are more things to celebrate about your child than there are things to worry about,” Edgar says. “Try to maintain balance and a healthy perspective. Carve out some space just to spend time together.”
Step #2: Educate Yourself
Talking about gender identity and sexual orientation can be difficult, but more so if you’re not speaking the same language. It may help to brush up on a few basic definitions so you can better understand your child and learn together.
For starters, here are some common terms from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but keep in mind that definitions may change over time.
Sex: A person’s biological status—male, female, or something else—assigned at birth. It’s usually based on physical anatomy.
Gender identity: A person’s sense of self, which can be male, female, or something else. It’s not limited to physical anatomy.
Lesbian (L): A woman who is primarily attracted to other women.
Gay (G): A person who is primarily attracted to people of the same gender. A gay man, for example, is attracted to other men.
Bisexual (B): A person who is attracted to more than one gender.
Transgender (T): A person whose current gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Someone who was assigned as male at birth, for example, may identify as female.
Queer (Q): An umbrella term sometimes used to refer to the LGBT community as a whole.
Step #3: Express Your Feelings
“It’s natural and normal for parents to feel distressed,” Dr. Huebner says. “Find someone—a partner, friend, therapist—to talk about your struggle.”
The key: Don’t do it in front of your child. To them, your troubled feelings can come across as criticism and lack of acceptance.
“That kind of talk has serious consequences,” Edgar says. “Imagine if you had to go to work and listen to someone complain all day long that they just don’t like the way you are. For your kid, that can be rocket fuel for hopelessness—and that helps drive suicidal impulses.”
Consider joining a support group for parents of LGBTQ children. For example, you can find local chapters of PFLAG, a network for LGBTQ individuals and their families, at pflag.org.
“Parents need to find other parents and create a network for themselves,” Edgar says. “And if you don’t have a community, make one. It’s not that hard to put an online group together.”
Step #4: Stay Positive and Keep Learning
Outward rejection can have lifelong consequences. But even subtle reactions can cause damage. “When you don’t allow your child to invite an LGBT friend over to the house, you might think you’re protecting them,” Dr. Huebner says. “But you’re actually withholding valuable resources from them.”
Sometimes, parents blame kids for being bullied, saying things like, “Do you need to dress so gay?” Or they’ll ask their kids to keep their gender identity or sexual orientation a secret.
“Those rejecting behaviors are powerfully tied to negative outcomes,” Dr. Huebner says. “When kids hear things like that, it tells them there’s something shameful about themselves.”
Instead, be open and honest with your child. Let them know that you’re working on being supportive and learning as you go.
“It’s OK for the process to take a long time,” Dr. Huebner says. “Just keep working at it. Let this be your mantra: Do good before you feel good.”
Step #5: Find Help for Your Child
In safe, supportive environments, LGBTQ youth can thrive. But many factors—parental rejection or bullying at school, for example—can increase the risk of depression, suicide, and substance abuse, according to the CDC.
Watch for signs of mental health issues in children and teens, which may include:
- Ongoing sadness or irritability
- Difficulties at school or in activities
- Loss of interest in daily life or hobbies
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Unexplained physical pain or injuries
- Thoughts or expressions of self-harm
If you are concerned your child is experiencing an emergency and may harm themselves, call 911. The Trevor Project also provides immediate support for LGBTQ youth in crisis at 1-866-488-7386 or TrevorChat.
Otherwise, if your child has any of these signs for more than two weeks, talk to their primary care doctor or therapist to start. Plus, use our parent’s guide to finding mental healthcare for your child.
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