How to Talk to Your Child Who Is Questioning or Identifies as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Asexual (LGBTQA)
* This is the second of a two-part series on how to talk to children about LGBT issues. The previous article focused on how to discuss the gender and sexuality of other people with your children.
Talking to your child about gender identity and sexual orientation can feel overwhelming for parents who aren’t sure where or how to begin the conversation. Often, these conversations start after a kid has met someone who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or asexual (LGBTQA). In our previous blog, John Thompson, MSW, and myself, discussed how to engage your child in these types of conversations and how it can open the door for your child to disclose his or her own gender identity or sexual orientation. This blog will give you tips about how to talk to children about their own sexual orientation and gender identity.
Exploring how you identify and who you are sexually attracted to is a normal part of childhood development, but for LGBTQA youth, they may not feel like they are part of the norm and often feel alone because of this. This can lead LGBTQA youth toward trying to conform to social norms and hide their authentic selves even to the people closest to them. Feeling like you have to hide your true self can put these young people at risk for suicide, mental health issues, substance abuse and risky sexual behaviors. We also see these youth being victims of violence at higher rates than their peers.
What we do know is that LGBTQA children have better outcomes when they have supportive parents and families. “Youth who have supportive families have a greater sense of self-worth and have a stronger safety net to fall back on when faced with the common challenges of growing up LGBTQA,” says Thompson. “Research shows that family support is a strong protective factor in building the resilience of youth and helping them cope with things like bullying, discrimination and conflict with peers.”
In order to be a good support system for your kid, it is valuable to understand key terms. In our last post, we explained some of the most common terms that would come up when discussing someone else’s sexual orientation or gender identity. While most of these terms also apply to how someone personally identifies, there are some words that we did not define that you might hear from a child who identifies as LGBTQA. First, we’d like to remind you of one big idea—sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing and don’t always match up to social norms. For instance, someone who identifies as a transgender male may be sexually attracted to people who identify as female and therefore identify as straight. However, if this person was attracted to people who identify as male, they may also identify as gay.
Sexual orientation: Describes a person’s feelings of attraction to other people. Examples: lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, asexual, pansexual, and heterosexual.
Gender Identity: The gender a person feels they are inside. Only the individual can say what their gender identity is. Examples: transgender, cis-gender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, or gender queer.
Cis-gender: A person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.
Transgender: A person whose gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth.
Queer: An umbrella term used by some people in the LGBTQA community that has multiple meanings. Some people use it to signify fluidity in sexual orientation or sexual identity. Others use it as a political term to assert a non-normative or non-mainstream sexual identity. Once used as a slur against LGBTQA people, many members of the LGBTQA community have reclaimed this word and use it as a term of empowerment.
Questioning: A term used to describe someone who is exploring, discovering, or unsure about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. Questioning does not mean someone is “confused.” Questioning one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity is a normal part of human development, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Coming out: A term used to describe when LGBTQA people disclose who they are or how they identify. There are different degrees of coming out; some people may only tell their friends or certain family members while others may come out more publicly. Coming out is a process that occurs over a lifetime.
Here are some tips on how to talk to and support children about how they may identify.
- Create a safe space. Remember that coming out can be stressful for young people. Give your child encouragement or praise for being open with you. Using derogatory language, physically abuse or kicking children out of the home for disclosing their authentic selves is very harmful to the relationship you have with them and may create a barrier to future conversations. While these acts may be obviously damaging, other acts may not seem as harsh. However, limiting access to friends, events, resources and/or medical care or trying to pressure your child to conform to social norms (i.e. be more masculine or feminine) even in a joking manner can be equally destructive to your child’s sense of self.
- Honor your child’s unique experiences. Understand that there may be some things your child is experiencing that you won’t understand. Sometimes LGBTQA youth want to talk to other LGBTQA people, and that’s OK. Try not to take it personally. Reinforce that you are there for your child when and if he or she needs you.
- Give yourself space. Most parents have a vision of who their children will be, who they will marry, if they will have kids, what kind of career they will have, etc. Social norms tend to influence this vision toward a heterosexual cis-gender ideal. Give yourself time and space to grieve the dreams you may have envisioned for your kid. Children being their authentic selves doesn’t change who they are, but it changes who you thought they would be.
- Find support. You and your child are not alone. It’s ok to express your fear, angry or worry, but not to your child. Instead, seek out support from other parents of LGBTQA kids and the youth themselves. Many parents and LGBTQA youth find that meeting people who have had similar experiences helps them feel understood, empowered and connected. Seek out sympathetic, empathetic and knowledgeable support groups, therapists and medical providers. Examples: Transforming Families, PFLAG, Family Acceptance Project.
- It’s not all about this. Your children are more than their sexual orientation or gender identity. Having them stay engaged in other life activities or events is beneficial for their overall well-being.
- Don’t disclose without permission. Coming out is hard enough, but having someone disclose information you weren’t ready to share can be very devastating. Let your child dictate which people he or she is willing to share this information with and how much information he or she would like to share. If children trust you, they will continue to be open with you about what is going on in their lives.
- Be an advocate. Other people may not be as accepting, but they should always respect your child. You might not be able to change their mind but you can direct them on how you expect them to speak or engage with your child.
We hope we have provided some useful tips on how to have a discussion with your children about how they identify. You may not feel completely confident in having this talk, but being someone your children can go to without judgment will make them more likely to be open with you about what is going on in their lives. Being someone they can trust and feel supported by is often more important than having the “right answer.” However, if your child ever asks you a question that you’re unsure of how to answer, speak with your child’s medical provider, a licensed therapist or your local LGBTQA center.