Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
I work with a remarkable teenager who is figuring out where she fits in the LGBTQ+ community. Meanwhile, her mother is earnestly pressing her to dress and behave more “normal” and “straight.”
“I just don’t want your life to be so hard, honey,” her mom said in one session.
“But Mom, this is the hard part!” the teen replied. “Once you allow me to be myself, my life will be way easier!”
That’s one common parental reaction to a child’s coming out process, and it takes a toll on kids. Another is rejection: One young man I worked with came out to his conservative parents in a session. Their immediate rejection has caused a rift to this day. He’s bruised by their rejection, but not broken – he’s happily in a relationship with a man his parents have never met.
Some parents make their kids feel less than OK and others reject their kids. Then there are the supportive parents, who join their kids on this path. I work with a transgender boy who has been on his transition journey together with his parents. Their journey has not only brought them closer together, but he tells me his parents’ support saved his life.
How a parent reacts to their child’s coming out process is crucial. Supportive parents can create a spirit of collaboration, and a soft place to fall when these situations prove trying. As Pride Month comes to a close, it presents an opportunity for parents to set that tone going forward.
What can parents do?
It can be difficult for parents in my practice to process, much less accept, their LGBTQ+ child. Initially, most feel undereducated and ill-prepared. Some feel a sense of fear and even grief. Parents often come to me at a loss about how to approach this topic.
It’s still important to try. Parents need to talk with their kids and listen to them, about their own sexuality, and acceptance of that of others. Otherwise, kids may be maintaining a wholly unnecessary, but emotionally taxing, secret from you. Parents can free them from that burden. And you don’t have to be an expert. Kids frequently tell me it’s OK to ask openly about what you don’t know.
Remember, this is still the child you love
Many parents have expressed to me, in a state of despair, that they will never be able to fully relate to their LGBTQ+ child again once they come out. Parents often spell out the losses: “She’s no longer my little girl.” “He’ll be bullied the rest of his life.” “They’ll never marry or have a family.”
These parents are missing out. After decades in practice, I’ve known a lot of these kids, and they are amazing. They talk openly with me, and I get to see this beautiful side of them that their own parents never see. By wishing only for conformity, parents don’t get to enjoy a lifelong connection with their LGBTQ+ children – the children they have raised, the children they say they have loved unconditionally.
For that reason, once a child is out and finds their footing, I tend to fear more for the parent. That child will, in all likelihood, grow up and live a full, rich life like the young man with the conservative parents. But the parents may miss the experience entirely because of this one fumbled opportunity, opting for judgment and fear over love and acceptance.
The bravery of coming out
If your child has approached you about their sexual identity, consider the courage it took to broach that conversation. If you were in the same boat a generation ago, how difficult would that talk have been for you? How hard would you have worked to avoid it?
I’m in awe of the kids who have come into my therapy room to share their sexual identity or orientation – or that they want to understand it for themselves. I grieve for every parent who misses this enormous opportunity to connect and share that experience. It’s a beautiful process, a chance to deepen a connection. It’s certainly worthy of the word “pride.”
How to get help:
These kids, your kids and our kids, deserve to feel that pride from you.
And it’s worth noting how vital its impact can be. LGBTQ+ youth are at exceptionally high risk for suicide, suicidal ideation and self-harming gestures. They attempt and die by suicide far more than straight youth. Solely by virtue of their sexual identities, these kids face an alarming degree of risk.
As parents, your acceptance can help bolster them from these grave risks.
What if your child is straight and cisgender?
Even if you think you don’t need to think about Pride because your kids aren’t LGBTQ+, you face an opportunity to talk with all of your kids about unconditional love and acceptance.
Ask them about their feelings regarding their LGBTQ+ peers. I suspect you’ll hear some surprising answers. In all likelihood, parents will find their children have far more open minds with regard to these issues than they do themselves.
And be prepared for the possibility that you could be wrong about your kids’ identity.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
In fact, some parents may carry some residual bias, or need to work on fully understanding this novel situation. But if you’re willing to do this work, learn and listen and support, just consider the model you’re providing. You don’t fully understand a topic but you’re going to work to learn more. It’s an approach I think most parents would want their children to follow.