Mindpath Health’s Kiana Shelton, LCSW helps discuss how to support your child when they come out to you.
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.
The Trevor Project released a national survey on LGBTQ youth mental health for 2022, calling it “one of the most diverse surveys of LGBTQ youth ever conducted.” This groundbreaking study indicates that “LGBTQ youth who live in a community that is accepting of LGBTQ people reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide compared to those who did not.”
Yet parents might rightly have concerns about their children who are on the LGBTQ spectrum, since these youth by and large experience challenges to their mental and physical health, even in 2022.
Troublingly, only 37% of LGBTQ youth identified their homes as an LGBTQ-affirming space. The study also revealed five common ways parents were able to support their children after they came out. These techniques included welcoming children’s LGBTQ friends or peers; talking respectfully with them about their identities; using names and pronouns correctly; supporting their gender expression; and educating themselves about LGBTQ people and the issues they face.
With National Coming Out Day on October 11, we spoke to experts about how you can support your child if they come out to you, and how to hold their hands through the joyful experience of knowing themselves.
Fostering an Inclusive Environment for Your Family
The Trevor Project 2022 survey showed that “nearly 2 in 5 LGBTQ 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?
“It is important to educate children on gender identity and sexual orientation—and establish early on, that people of all identities are welcomed and respected,” says Myeshia Price (she/they), PhD, and director of research at The Trevor Project. “Recent research found that parents, in particular, can take relatively simple actions to make LGBTQ youth feel supported, such as talking respectfully about LGBTQ identities and educating themselves about LGBTQ issues.”
Open communication appears to be the key to an inclusive household, along with acceptance. “These showings of support and affirmation can begin well before a child ever reaches the point of deciding whether to come out, as family values of kindness and affirmation toward people of all identities can be taught and practiced from day one,” Price adds.
“By having open and accepting conversations within the home, we remind children on the LGBTQ and trans spectrum that access and support are within arm’s reach,” says Kiana Shelton, LCSW with Mindpath Health.
But any environment can be made inclusive for children, even before they come out. Verywell Family has created a list of 10 children’s books that celebrate pride, for example. By making different sexualities and gender expressions part of an open conversation, parents can help their kids feel safe to come out, from childhood and into their teenage years.
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, Dr. Shelton says. “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.'”
Dr. Price adds that one particularly helpful response is to remind your child that you love them no matter what. “Always respond with affirmations and offer help them in whatever form they need. Take their lead but ensure that they know you are always there for them.”
Victoria Pelletier, a keynote speaker and managing director with Accenture, 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 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.
“Taking the time to have an open and honest conversation with your child about how they feel and what their identity means to them can help foster a healthy relationship moving forward in their coming out journey,” says Dr. Price.
“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.
Dr. 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 (e.g. how they dress, TV shows they watch, etc.).”
It’s best to avoid phrasing things in the negative, so that your child feels like they are safe in their home no matter what. But things left unsaid can also be hurtful.
“Unfortunately, many young people have reported that, after coming out to parents or loved ones, they were met with silence,” Dr. Price says. “Taking a silent approach to your child coming out can signal rejection. If you are unsure of how to respond, it’s crucial that you work to self-educate and build a sense of comfort in talking about gender identity and sexual orientation in affirming ways.”
Even in households that hold space for children on the LGBTQ spectrum, there can be challenges. “I’m still struggling with [Jordyn’s pronoun] change—mostly because I’m accustomed to saying ‘she.’ I know it will take time, I just wish it came a little more quickly,” Pelletier says.
Jordyn acknowledges this reality as well. “When I came out as transgender and started questioning my gender, [it] threw my mom for a loop.” The thing that eased their experience was their mother’s support. “My mom bought me all my binders and did the research to find the best ones. My mom has always said that she will love me no matter what, and I’ll always be her child.”
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.1 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,” Dr. 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.
“If your child comes out to you, but not your co-parent, then you should discuss that with your child directly and with empathy,” says Dr. Price. “Take their lead to get a sense of why they may not feel comfortable coming out to their other parent and don’t rush or force a decision either way.”
Resources Available to Support Your LGBTQ Child
There are many incredible resources parents can provide their children—and can use themselves—after they come out.
Dr. Price and Dr. Shelton both suggest the seminal Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Organization (PFLAG), which was the first and largest organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ people and their families.
Dr. Shelton also suggests the Human Rights Campaign’s pages for parents raising kids on the LGBTQ spectrum, such as Just As They Are, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) page dedicated to LGBTQ health and youth resources.
Dr. Price also suggests The Trevor Project’s Coming Out Handbook, which covers a wide range of topics related to supporting children through their coming out journeys.
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