“I was terrified. This was unchartered territory for me.”
“I didn’t want this for my child.”
“My head started swirling with the news stories of kids who get bullied for being gay, or even killed.”
“It was completely shocking. I thought my daughter would always be my daughter. If I’m being honest, I was also a little sad.”
“I was overwhelmed because there was just so much I didn’t — and still don’t — understand. Afterwards, I had to Google what ‘nonbinary’ is.”
“I just had no idea what I should do or say, but I’m the adult, the parent. I was supposed to know how to parent my kid and how to keep them safe.”
When your child comes out to you, it’s a lot to take in. The quotes above represent a few of the common themes we hear.
Parents and caregivers report that their number one feeling is fear, and sadness and overwhelm are also very common. Integrating this new knowledge of a child you thought you knew is a lot — even for the most supportive family members.
Anyone who’s had a child knows how easy it is to say the wrong thing when emotions run high. When we experience elevated emotions, our rational brains are hijacked by our feelings and our responses are not always the best.
When a child comes out, it can be emotional for everyone involved. And at the center of it is the child. No matter how hard/overwhelming/terrifying/fill-in-the-blank-with-a-feeling it is for you as the family member or parent, multiply that tenfold for how the child is feeling when they share their identity or orientation with you.
It’s a big moment, with big consequences.
And the truth is, parental and family support is the number one protective factor against high-risk behaviors for LGBTQ+ youth.
Your support is the most important way you can keep your child safe.
We hear so many stories from queer people who don’t have a supportive family network.
It’s heartbreaking for a child to feel alone and unsupported, and this isolation can lead to risky behaviors such as substance use, putting oneself in dangerous situations, and/or a higher risk of experiencing sexual or physical violence.
You might be tempted to think that coming out to supportive family members who are ready to unfurl a Pride flag makes everything dreamy and easy-breezy for all involved. That’s not always the case either.
It may be just as terrifying for the person coming out to a supportive family member — because that individual has felt loved by their families, and might fear that love and acceptance could be at risk.
When your child comes out to you, it’s an invitation for connection. They care enough about their relationship with you to share this important truth.
- Even when you’re not quite sure how to respond, your child needs to hear that you love them and that you’ll always love them for who they are.
- Reassure your child that you’ll continue to be their biggest advocate and ally. Always and forever.
And don’t forget to be gentle with yourself.
Even if you’re way out of your comfort zone and overwhelmed, remember that your child will always be your child. If all you can do in the moment is to offer them your love and support, that’s enough — and it’s OK if you don’t have all the answers right now.
Ask for a do-over.
Yup. We’ve all been there — said or done the wrong thing with the people we love most in the world.
The words come out of your mouth and you know immediately that it was the wrong thing to say. Or you thought you said the right thing but the listener gets up and storms out of the room. Or you storm out of the room.
It’s OK to ask for a do-over. We’re all human.
A lot of us struggle to process information and our emotions fast enough to get our rational brains back online in time to offer a thoughtful response.
Some of us hit on the perfect response while we’re sitting at a stoplight, hours or days later. Sometimes we just need more time before we circle back to re-engage with a conversation.
Try opening a conversation like this:
- “I know I upset you the other day with how I reacted. I’d like to try again. Can we talk more about it now?”
- “I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation last night. I was exhausted from work and I’m sorry that I said ______. That’s not how I really feel. I’ve collected my thoughts, and wonder if you’re ready to continue the conversation?”
Conversation starters like these communicate more than just the words you’re saying — they communicate your care and respect for the listener. You kept thinking about the conversation that ended poorly because the listener matters to you. In fact, that individual matters so much that you want to make things right with them and return to the conversation.
This is a beautiful way to express your love and support of your child or loved one by using words and action.
Sometimes words are still hard.
As your child navigates their gender identity or sexual orientation, the goal is to keep those communication lines open.
But how do we do that when it’s already hard to communicate with our loved one?
Some of us express ourselves easily with words and others don’t. Sometimes even the most chatty individuals may struggle to express themselves when they’ve realized (or are realizing) that they’re LGBTQ+.
This calls for some creativity. And desperate, loving parents and caregivers are some of the most resourceful, creative, and persistent folks we know, so we’re sharing some of their tips here.
If your child doesn’t want to talk, don’t try to make them. Give them space and time for their own process while letting them know that you love and support them, and are ready to listen when they’re ready to share.
Here are some options you could offer in place of live conversation…
- A journal — for writing or notes, questions and worries, drawing, painting, collage, doodling, or all of the above. Invite your child to share any, all, or none of their journaling with you. Getting some of their thoughts and feelings onto the page may help them know how to share them with you.
- Texting — this can often remove a bit of the emotional charge from a conversation, since neither party will be able to see the other’s face during a texting “conversation.” Your child might find it easier to be honest and open with you from behind their screen.
- Notes — sometimes even texting can feel too demanding or too immediate. Good old-fashioned notes still work! Try a post-it conversation on the bathroom mirror — where one party poses a question or a thought or worry on a post-it, and the other party replies with another post-it. You can share what’s on your mind with each other, while respecting each other’s boundaries.
Let your child lead the way and take your cues from them.
They may need time and space. They may need extra hugs and snuggles. They may want to talk about their identity or orientation all the time! Or not at all. You may need to try different pathways for opening communication with your child. What works one week may not work the next.
In initiating communication, show your respect, support, and love for your child by putting their needs at the center. They need to know you’re there for them, no matter what, with love and a commitment to getting it right (not being right).
We’re here for parents, caregivers, and family members.
Do you need support?
OUT Maine offers free groups for families of LGBTQ+ youth, twice per month. The family groups are a place to share your experiences while building a strong network and community in support of queer youth in Maine. For more information click here, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call us at 800-530-6997 with any questions.