Support for Families
The Alliance is committed to healthy families! We strive to assist families struggling with their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity because a supportive family is the key to keeping youth safe. All families are unique and respond to information in their own way. It’s not always easy, but here are some tips for family members:
Talk to your youth about it. Ask questions, listen, empathize, and be there for them. Family rejection is the biggest fear young people have when coming out. Express affection when your child tells you or when you learn that your child is gay or transgender even though you may feel uncomfortable.
Learn the facts. Get informed about sexual orientation or gender identity. You may have a lot of questions now that you received this information, and there is a lot of misinformation that can be daunting about what this means for your child. Go beyond what you think you already know – learn about the coming out process, new language and correct terminology to better communicate with and support your child.
Thank your youth for coming to you to discuss this issue. Family rejection is the primary fear youth have when coming out. It’s the leading cause for youth homelessness; it’s been linked to youth suicide, depression, and risky behaviors. If your child turns to you to share personal information, you must be doing something right!! Encourage them to keep sharing with you by being open and listening to their experiences.
Get to know the community. Check out what resources are available for you and your child. Does their school have a gay-straight-alliance (GSA)? Is there a parent support group in your community where you can talk to other families? Is there a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community center nearby? Is there an affirming place of faith? There are all sorts of resources available so you don’t have to do it alone.
Don’t make it ALL about this one thing. Your child is still as dynamic and as multi-dimensional as ever. You may have just learned about their sexual orientation or gender identity – they are the same person as before. Coming out can be overwhelming for you and them, and figuring out their identity is important, but they are more than just this identity.
ASK your youth before you share with other family and friends. Coming out is a life-long process for the individual and their family. Be mindful that you have information your youth may not be ready to share with everyone else. Check-in with your child and be respectful of their request. Maintaining their trust is imperative for them to keep sharing with you.
Know that you are not alone! You may have a range of feelings, and those feelings may change over time. But you don’t have to deal with it on your own; contact The Alliance to learn about our individualized support or parent support group. All our services are confidential and with a focus on supporting you and your family.
Stages of Family Experience
The following is a list of typical stages families experience when their loved one comes out to them. Keep in mind that all families are unique, and respond to change in their own way. This information is meant to support your family through the coming out process.
STAGE 1: SHOCK
Shock is a natural reaction that we all experience (and need for a while) to avoid acute distress and upset. It may last anywhere from 10 minutes to a week; usually it wears off in a few days.
Often people think long and hard before coming out; your youth might have been struggling to get to the point to come out. They fear rejection and are encouraged to be confident about their identity before sharing it because it can be such a distressing process. Remember that your child is still the same person today that they were yesterday. They haven’t changed; you just learned something new about them.
STAGE 2: DENIAL
Denial helps to shield a person from a threatening or painful message. It is different from shock because it indicates the person has heard the message and is attempting to build a defense mechanism to ward it off. Denial take many forms:
-Hostility. “No son of mine is going to be queer!”
-Non-Registering. “That’s nice dear. What do you want for dinner?”
-Non-Caring. “If you choose that lifestyle, I don’t want to hear about it.”
-Rejection. “It’s just a phase. You’ll get over it.”
According to statistics, up to 10% of people identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual and up to 1% of people identify as transgender. Approximately 25% of families have an immediate family member who identifies as GLBT, and most people have at least one GLBT individual in their extended family. Although identifying as GLBT may not be the norm, it is quite normal and natural.
STAGE 3: GUILT
Most families that who struggle with their youth identifying as GLBTQ, initially perceive it as a “problem” and ask: “What causes it?” They think if they can locate a cause, then a cure is not far behind. The truth is nothing causes someone to be GLBTQ. It’s not the cause of the lack of a specific gender parent or any other parenting practice. There are different theories, including physiology, but the origins are still unknown.
STAGE 4: FEELINGS EXPRESSED
When it’s clear that guilt is unproductive, parents are ready to ask questions, listen to answers, and acknowledge their feelings. This is the point at which some of the most productive dialogue between families and their youth take place. Naturally, the full range of feelings will emerge and the following thoughts are common:
-“I’m disappointed that I won’t have any grandchildren.”
-“Please don’t tell anyone in the family; I’m not ready to face this issue with anyone else.”
-“I feel so alone and hurt. I believe I was better off not knowing.”
-“How can you hurt us this way?”
-“I wish I were dead.”
And since we all live in a world that is homophobic and transphobic, your child probably has experienced many of the same feelings: isolation, anger, fear of rejections, hurt, confusion, fear of the future, etc. Families can share in the similarities of their experience and feelings. In order for families to make progress, it is better to speak their feelings rather than attempt to deny feeling them. When families begin to express these feelings they’re on the road to recovery.
Now may be a good time to talk to our Family Specialist or connect with other parents that understand.
STAGE 5: MAKING DECISIONS
As the emotional trauma subsides, families will increasingly deal more rationally with the issue. It’s common at this point for them to retreat for a while and consider the options that lie ahead. Family members may not necessarily choose the same response moving forward. Several factors will influence decisions, but the importance of restoring their relationship with their child is the major factor.
Most parents continue to love their child in a way that allows them to accept the reality of the child’s sexual orientation or gender identity and be supportive. In fact, now that the relationship between parents and child is on a level of mutual honesty and trust, most parents say their relationship is better than it was.
Sometimes parents respond by making it clear it’s an issue that no longer requires discussion. Although they can discuss the matter, they are quite fragile in dealing with it. They have progressed this far and wish to go no further.
In some instances the GLBTQ identity can be the staging area for constant fighting. Everything your loved one does and says is viewed as a symptom of their “problem”. As long as this condition exists, both parents and child are in a no-win situation. Generally speaking, if one parent assumes this extreme position, the other parent may have difficulty choosing a role that is far from it. Most parents who attend a parents’ meeting or connect with a supportive parent of another child greatly increase the chance of shifting to a less negative position.
Problem-solving and changing personal attitudes often can be understood as “two steps forward and one step backward”. It’s not uncommon for families to slip back a step or two, and go over an issue already addressed. Be patient and allow time for process; it’s the way change usually comes about.
STAGE 6: TRUE ACCEPTANCE
Some parents get this far, some do not. Some love their child without finally accepting the child’s identity. Some reach the point where they can celebrate their child’s uniqueness. Regardless of where you are in this journey, know that you are not alone.
This information was adapted from OutProud.
SOME FAMILY BEHAVIORS THAT PROMOTE WELL-BEING
- Talk with your child about their sexual orientation or gender identity
- Express affection when your child tells you or when you learn that your child is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender
- Support your child’s sexual orientation and gender identity even though you may feel uncomfortable
- Advocate for your child when he or she is mistreated because of their sexual orientation or gender identity
- Require that other family members respect your child
- Bring your child to GLBTQ organizations or events
- Connect your child with an GLBTQ adult role model to show them options for the future
- Welcome your child’s GLBTQ friends & partners to your home
- Support your child’s gender expression
- Believe your child can have a happy future as a GLBTQ adult
Adapted from Caitlin Ryan, Family Acceptance Project, 2009
Characteristics of Parents of Healthy GLBTQ Youth
- Demonstrate value, respect, acceptance, and trust in their adolescent children.
- Model sexually healthy attitudes in their own relationships.
- Maintain a non-punitive stance toward sexuality and gender expression.
- Are knowledgeable about sexuality.
- Allow for exploration in gender presentation.
- Discuss sexuality with their children.
- Provide information on sexuality to their child.
- Seek appropriate guidance and information as needed.
- Try to understand their teen’s point of view.
- Help their youth gain an understanding of their values.
- Set and maintain limits for dating and other activities outside of school.
- Stay actively involved in their youth’s life.
- Ask questions about friends and romantic partners.
- Provide a supportive and safe environment for their children.
- Offer to assist youth in accessing health care services.
- Help their youth plan for their future.
Adapted from Facing Facts: Sexual Health for America's Adolescents, SIECUS, New York, NY, 1995.