Your teenager has just come out and identified as gay. What do you do? The first thing, experts say, is to put yourself in their shoes and understand that he or she may have fears about not being accepted for who they are.
“For your child, this is the first time your child is truly seen,” Michael Anthony-Nalepa, a licensed psychotherapist with a specialized degree in LGBTQ+ affirmative psychotherapy tells Parentology. “If you can remember the intensity of the moment you held your child for the first time, it’s kind of the same thing in reverse for them. It’s the moment they’re revealing their true selves to their parents.”
It needs to be handled with care — but it doesn’t need to be treated like a tragedy. “You did nothing wrong,” stresses Nalepa. “Scientists have proven that there is a huge genetic component to sexual orientation and the American Psychological Association affirms that there is nothing pathological or maladaptive about same-sex attraction. Give yourself that space.”
“Often parents call me and leave this rushed anxious message on my voicemail: ‘My child has come out! What do I do’?” recalls Nalepa. “When I call them back, I always make a point to say, ‘Congratulations!’ And more often than not, they become so emotional hearing that, they start to cry.”
Nalepa thinks this is mainly because parents have been holding the news in a negative way. Instead, he encourages them to look at it as an evolution. “Yes, there are safety concerns. There is mourning for what you thought their life would look like. There is a lot being discussed. But try to see it as a positive development — a graduation to becoming who they really are.”
If you’re wondering what to do when your child comes out, here a few tips.
FIRST UP: How your reaction matters.
Your Immediate Reaction Matters
“While it’s true that many parents say they always knew their child was gay, there are just as many parents who say that feel completed blindsided,” says Nalepa. Regardless, it’s important that your first response is a supportive one even if you’re totally stunned or even upset. Try to hold a space where it’s not about you.
“When I work with gay people and ask them about their coming out experience, they can actually describe for me look in their parents’ eyes when they first told them,” says Nalepa. “This is a defining moment for an LGBTQ+ person and they’ll remember it forever.” So while being open and honest is important, try to constantly hold yourself to the standard, Is this supportive? This is not your time to do therapy.”
Instead, emphasize that you love them no matter what their sexual orientation is. They are the same child they always were, with the same great qualities they’ve always had.
Hug Your Child
“No matter what is said or not said, let them walk away with some kind of physical affection, be it a hug or a hand on the shoulder,” says Nalepa. It’s important to end the conversation on a hopeful note. “Yes, there will be challenges ahead, for your child and for you,” Nelapa says, “but let your child walk away from the conversation knowing that they are loved and feeling like everything will be okay.”
NEXT UP: You don’t have to do this by yourself.
Seek Counseling–For Your Child and Yourself
Find her a therapist or psychologist to share your teen’s feelings and concerns with. Members of these professions follow a code of ethics that requires them to be knowledgeable, respectful, and tolerant of LGBT people. You still may want to get a feel for how a therapist views LGBTQ+ people by discussing the topic with him or her before your child starts therapy. It can be helpful for you to join in on a session or two.
You’ll need someone to talk to, too. When your child comes out, it changes how you see the course of their life. Often, there’s mourning in letting that go. That’s normal, but you should find a way to deal with those feelings without making them your child’s problem.
“You’ll naturally have questions like, What will a wedding look like? What will parenting look like? What will holidays with their parents and families look like?” says Nalepa. Some parents have described letting go of those dreams as “a kind of death” to Nalepa. “But that’s not your child’s burden, so seek professional help on your own to process those feelings.”
Another excellent resource is Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). This is a national support and advocacy group with hundreds of local chapters. You can attend meetings to share your feelings with other parents of gay and lesbian children. You’re not alone.
Hold Your Gay Child to the Same Standards as Straight Siblings
It’s important to have one set of rules for all your children. For example, if your house rule is not to allow their girlfriends or boyfriends stay overnight, apply the same rules to your gay child. Or if you allow for your straight child to bring their girlfriend or boyfriend to family functions, give your gay child the same right and support.
Keep In Mind You’ve Become an Instant Activist
Like it or not, there is now something about your family that is not part of the mainstream — and that comes with responsibilities as well as opportunities.
“As the parent of an LGBTQ+ child, people on your street will have thoughts about you,” says Nalepa. “People at work will have thoughts about you. People at church will have thoughts about you and how you respond to every situation matters.” And not responding, well, that’s also responding. And so is laughing something off.
Be calm and comfortable with the concept of your child being gay when it’s time to share this information with extended family and friends. Your acceptance will foster others’ acceptance. “You’ve taken on a role as an activist whether you want it or not,” says Nalepa. “So really spend time investing in your values and thinking ‘In the face of homophobia, who do I want to be?’”
NEXT UP: The battles against homophobia