“When he told me he only had crushes on boys and that’s why he never dated, I started crying.”
“My son told me not to tell his father that he really feels like a girl. Did I let him play with girls too much?”
“I asked my daughter why her best friend identifies as lesbian, and she told me she thinks she may be one too. I’m sure she is not.”
When teens come out, the world shifts. Some parents respond with denial, wanting to diminish the news. Others feel anger and want to find out who is responsible. Some parents feel sadness, anticipating a loss of shared values, a loss of future. Denial, anger and sadness are all important aspects of grief processing, and for many parents, responding to a child’s coming out is a grief experience.
Most children talk with their parents only after years of trying to figure out what is really happening inside, and when they finally tell parents, those years are condensed into a moment that – to a parent – may feel like a dropped bomb.
After listening to hundreds of stories of parents responding to their children’s expressions of attraction and identity, I’ve seen how important it is for parents to take care of their own emotional health afterward.*
Here are some valuable principles to keep in mind:
- Take a break to figure yourself out. Denial, anger, and grief are expected. However, if your child feels overwhelmed by your denial, anger and grief, then healthy connecting may be more difficult. Many children “take on” their parents’ reactions and become more isolated. You may want to find another place and time to express and explore your genuine reactions. One mother told her child she loved him and needed some time to figure out her own feelings, and then she spent the afternoon at her sister’s home. Another father immediately called a counselor, reassuring his son that the counseling was intended to help the father provide healthy support for his son.
- Remind yourself, “This is not a crisis.” One mother described feeling completely numb. Because Christmas was only a few days away, she felt both the pressure of the family’s expectation and the heaviness of the news. She found that repeating aloud the words, “This is not a crisis” reminded her that their family would still survive despite the new information.
- It’s normal to feel more upset, even though your child may seem happier. While children often feel relief after sharing feelings with parents, your feelings may begin to resemble a roller-coaster. It may seem unfair that your child has just given you the burden to carry. Breathe through these feelings and recognize that this is normal.
- Find safe people to share what you are feeling. Your child may insist that you tell no one. And although it’s important to honor your child’s sense of privacy, it’s OK to let your child know that you need to talk with someone. Perhaps you and your child can agree on a trusted family member, friend, or counselor.
- Limit your contact with others who are uninformed. Sometimes well-meaning friends and family have advice that is not helpful, or that undermines your confidence in yourself and your child. It’s OK to limit your contact with these people for a period of time. Plan what you will say. “We are working hard to support each other right now and I need to focus on that,” may be helpful to repeat.
And finally, when you ask “Why me?” try switching to the question, “Why not me?” and see what strengths you find in yourself. Chances are you are being called to a deeper way of loving your child and yourself.
SIDEBAR MATERIAL — Find a Parent Support Group in Utah County
Find a parent support group. Meeting with other parents in similar situations has been a positive emotional turning point for many. Here are a few in Utah Valley:
- PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meets weekly at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in downtown Provo (email@example.com)
- Encircle Parents’ Meeting (Third Sunday of each month at Encircle in Provo) https://encircletogether.org/supportgroups
- Northstar Parents’ Meeting (Quarterly meeting at a parent’s home in Lehi)
Next time: Coming Out Part 3 – What do we do now?