Announcing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity can be an intimidating experience. In this Verywell Family article, Mindpath Health’s Kiana Shelton, LCSW, gives tips to support LGBTQIA+ youth on their journey to self-acceptance.
When children come out to their parents and caretakers, it can be difficult to know what to say during that joyful, but sometimes fraught, time. Of course, parents want to be as supportive as possible, even if it’s a challenge to know exactly how to talk to their children.
Troublingly, only 37% of LGBTQIA+ youth identified their homes as an LGBTQIA-affirming space. The study revealed five common ways parents were able to support their children after they came out. These techniques included welcoming children’s LGBTQIA+ friends or peers; talking respectfully with them about their identities; using names and pronouns correctly; supporting their gender expression; and educating themselves about LGBTQIA+ people and the issues they face.
Fostering an inclusive environment for your family
The Trevor Project 2022 survey showed that “nearly 2 in 5 LGBTQIA+ youth reported living in a community that is somewhat or very unaccepting of LGBTQ people.” It begs the question: what can parents do to provide a safe environment for their children?
Open communication appears to be the key to an inclusive household, along with acceptance.
“By having open and accepting conversations within the home, we remind children on the LGBTQIA+ and trans spectrum that access and support are within arm’s reach,” says Kiana Shelton, LCSW with Mindpath Health.
How to respond when your child comes out
When your child comes out to you, you may have questions about what to say to them to be as supportive as possible.
The language you use is very important, Shelton confirms. “When it comes to responding, it’s best to keep it simple and kind. For example, you could say, ‘I want to thank you for sharing with me’ or ‘This was brave, I’m proud of you.'”
Victoria Pelletier, a keynote speaker, shared her experience when her child, Jordyn, came out. Pelletier herself identifies as queer and came out to her own family when she was 14.
She explains when Jordyn came out, there was “a lot of discussion about being comfortable with the feelings and also being open to not labeling and ‘going with the flow.’ I shared my experience, which was very positive and supported by my own mother, and that of my ex-wife,” Pelletier says. “Hearing our stories and encouraging Jordyn to speak with others helped.”
Jordyn says open dialogue is key. “When I came out as bisexual, I just felt normal, like I was going to tell my mom anything else I would tell her. I never felt different when I came out to her, although I did have trouble in school for some time.”
After their initial conversation, Jordyn also came out to their mother as transgender. “Fast forward a couple of years, I recently came out as trans-masculine and changed my pronouns to he/him and they/them,” they explain. “I really felt like that was a real coming out for me; I was scared and tried to hide my feeling toward my gender for years. I thought it would be easier to be a masculine woman, but nothing ever fit right until I came out as transgender.”
As Jordyn indicates, coming out can be a fraught experience for children and teens, even in supportive households. Children want to hear that you support them and are in no way judging them. By framing your responses to value the people that they are, you can create space for them as individuals.
“My advice to parents with children who come out is to love and support their child, no matter what,” Jordyn says. “Parents need to show love to their kids and use their proper pronouns or accept their sexual orientation. The less support you show, [the more you] will drive your kids away.”
What not to say to your child when they come out to you
Equally, it can be hard to know what not to say to your child when they come out to you. You might be shocked, confused, or, in some cases, feel like you already knew.
Shelton advises caution and control. “You want to avoid big overreactions and flat reactions. Move away from statements that seem like you have known all along or how you are not surprised based on some other actions by the child.”
It’s best to avoid phrasing things negatively, so that your child feels like they are safe in their home no matter what. But things left unsaid can also be hurtful.
As the Trevor Project study suggests, children who feel less safe in their homes because of a lack of acceptance are more likely to suffer from deleterious mental health consequences. It’s important for parents to take a step back when their child comes out and realize that they are a person who is uniquely their own—and reacting negatively will severely damage their personhood.
What if your child comes out to only one parent?
But what if your child comes out to you–but not to the other parent in the picture? In a dual-parent household, navigating the murky waters of how to handle this can be a challenge.
“Coming out is a big step that involves trust and a lot of energy. If your child only comes out to you and not the other parent, it’s important to honor this,” Shelton says. “However, the most important thing you can do is have a conversation with your child about if they plan to tell the other parent. See if there is any way you can be supportive in helping to facilitate this conversation.”
Since trust is vital for any open communication between you and your child, it’s best to keep them in the loop and listen to them on this matter. Breaching that trust by outing them to the other parent or caretakers in their life can have serious consequences—not just for them, but for your relationship with them as a loving parent.
Read the full Verywell Family article with sources.
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