Parents love their children and want the best for them. They have a sincere desire to nurture and protect their children and keep them safe, particularly from anyone who might hurt or harm them.
Research shows that between two and seven percent of adults identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Studies also show that young people—both gay and heterosexual—first become aware of being romantically and physically attracted to another person at around age ten. Although some young people are identifying as gay during adolescence, regardless of whether they disclose this to others, some are aware of these feelings at an earlier age.
Parents’ attitudes can have a dramatic impact on their gay and transgender children’s lives. Young people are often afraid of how their families would respond to their identity and afraid they would be condemned or rejected because of it.
Many different behaviors that families and caregivers use to respond to their child’s gay or transgender identity include: telling your child she can’t come to a family event because she is lesbian or telling your child that God will punish him because he is gay. Some may be concerned that their children might have gay friends, and thus bar their association with them for fear that the friends have influenced their child’s identity.
For parents to support their gay and transgender children, this means helping them understand that you love them, discussing what risky behavior means, and above all, creating an environment where your child can confide in you and share his or her concerns.
A wide range of parental behaviors can affect a young person’s well-being, including risk for physical and mental health problems. Sending rejecting messages, some families drive their gay or transgender children out of the family circle and into high risk environments and behaviors. Research shows that family rejection is linked with serious health problems in adulthood and contributes to family disruption and homelessness. Many LGBT young people are placed in foster care, run away or are ejected from their homes because of family rejection related to their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Supporting your LGBT child does not mean that parents and other family members must accept behaviors that they consider inappropriate or against their family’s standards; what it does mean is that children who engage in behavior or express an identity that is not approved by the family still need love and acceptance, still need to feel that they are a part of the family, and still need a positive sense of self and hope for the future.
Supportive family reactions promote well-being and help protect LGBT young people from risky behaviors. At the same time, negative family reactions can have a serious impact on a gay or transgender young person’s risk for physical and mental health problems. That is, children from families where parents and other family members don’t reject or react punitively to their child’s identity, don’t send negative messages to that child or his LGBT friends, and don’t allow anti-gay sentiments to be expressed in the home are much more likely to avoid risky and self-destructive behaviors, are much more likely to lead happier lives and are much more likely to feel a part of the family.
Parents who send rejecting messages, who try to change their child’s identity, who prevent their gay and lesbian children from having LGBT friends, or who allow negative comments about LGBT people to be spoken in the home are more likely to have children who withdraw from the family circle and are at higher risk for serious health problems, such as suicide, substance abuse and HIV infection. The vastly different impact on children between these two kinds of parental reactions can be profound.
Many parents believe that the best way to help their gay or transgender children thrive as teens and adults is to pressure them to have only heterosexual friends. They may also try to change their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity, prevent her from learning about his/her identity or prevent him/her from finding LGBT resources to help develop a positive sense of who he or she is.
Because parents see these behaviors as loving or caring, they are often surprised and even shocked to learn that their gay children experience these reactions as rejection or abuse. Young people feel that by rejecting their core identity, their parents are rejecting them.
This often leads to family conflict and increases the adolescent’s distress, loss of hope, and vulnerability for risky behaviors. Parents think that by trying to prevent their children from learning about or from seeing themselves as gay they are helping their children survive in a world they feel will never accept them. But such well-intentioned behaviors are experienced as rejection by their children and often make adolescents feel as if their parents don’t love them, are ashamed of them or even hate them.
Many gay and transgender youth feel like they have to hide who they are to avoid hurting their family, being rejected by their family or even being thrown out of their homes. Young people who are rejected by their families because of their identity have much lower self-esteem, have fewer people they can turn to for help, and are more isolated than those who are accepted by their families, and are at very high risk for physical and mental health problems when they become young adults. Highly rejected LGBT young people are:
- More than 8 times as likely to attempt suicide
- Nearly 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression
- More than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, and
- More than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases
Behaviors to Avoid
- Hitting, slapping or physically hurting your child because of your child’s LGBT identity
- Verbal harassment or name-calling because of your child’s LGBT identity
- Excluding LGBT youth from family and family activities
- Blocking access to LGBT friends, events and resources
- Blaming your child when she is discriminated against or has negative experiences because of her LGBT identity
- Pressuring your child to be more (or less) masculine or feminine
- Telling your child that God will punish him because he is gay or bisexual
- Telling your child that you are ashamed of her or that how she looks or acts will shame the family
- Preventing or not allowing your child to talk about his LGBT identity
Behaviors that Help
- Talk with and listen respectfully to your child or foster child about her LGBT identity
- Express affection when your child tells you or when you learn that your child is gay or transgender
- Support your child even when you may feel uncomfortable
- Advocate for your child when he is mistreated because of his LGBT identity
- Require that other family members respect your LGBT child
- Tell your child you love her unconditionally
- Welcome your child’s LGBT friends to your home
- Support your child’s gender expression
- Stand up for your child at school to prevent and address bullying & harassment
- Openly discuss your child’s LGBT identity with your child and others
- Believe your LGBT child can have a happy future
The most important way that parents and families can help their child is to love and support that child—to help nurture a deep sense of self-worth and self-esteem. For many families, this may not seem possible at first. But building a child’s inner strength by helping him/her learn to value him/herself can help your child deal with discrimination and rejection from others. How you react to your gay or transgender child has a deep and lasting impact on his/her life. It not only affects their relationship with you and your family, it also affects your child’s health and well-being.
Start by finding time to talk with your child and invite him/her to tell you about his/her experiences and what (s)he is feeling. Ask how you can support your child and what (s)he needs from you. When your child talks, don’t interrupt; just listen with patience and compassion-from your heart. Above all, keep your lines of communication open.
Open communication between parents and children is a clear expression of love, and pure love can transform family ties. Now what?
So what! Your child identifies as LGBTQ! Love is unconditional and that should be all that matters. Give love, show love—unconditional love for your child!