Youth face many challenges. The struggles of simply growing up seem to becoming even harder, with recent studies having shown a rise of depression among teens. And LGBTQ communities face their own issues. Research found that 1 out of 3 LGBTQ individuals will develop a mental illness.
So, for children who have to face the realities of growing up and dealing with their sexual orientation or gender identity, life can seem especially overwhelming.
As a parent, it can also be hard to find the best way to help them. But a good start is to get educated. While parents and kids both have great questions, having conversations about sexual orientation or gender identity can be awkward and confusing. When I work with families in therapy, I try to help them find the path that works best for them. Here are some of the most common questions I get – and how I answer them.
Is there a typical age that a person realizes they are LGBTQ?
During early childhood, children start to develop a self-concept. These are the traits, abilities and values that they believe define them. An LGBTQ individual may have a vague sense of feeling different as a young child. But they may not be able to clearly label it. An individual who is transgender may start having this feeling at the age that young children simply start labeling themselves in terms of gender: “Am I a boy or girl?” They will feel that their physical characteristics conflict with their biological sex assignment.
As an adult, an LGBTQ person may look back at their childhood and remember attractions they had at young ages. It’s when they are older that they realize their LGBTQ identity. It’s important to note that a person’s attractions may not fully develop until early, mid or late adulthood. It is a process that can develop over time – and sometimes, a very long time.
Is it good for someone to come out at a young age?
There are risks and benefits to someone coming out during their childhood. It is probably the single hardest thing LGBTQ youths will experience and is a major decision. Many are afraid to come out to their friends and family for various reasons, including fear of:
- Being gossiped about or discriminated against
- Experiencing harassment, abuse or physical violence
- Being shunned by family or thrown out of their home
- Being rejected by religious, social or other communities and groups
- Losing their job or financial support
- Changing their relationships permanently
While risking these scenarios can be scary, there are still benefits. Studies have found that someone who comes out has higher self-esteem, greater comfort with their sexuality, less homophobia and less substance abuse.
Other benefits include:
- Being able to live honestly and avoiding a double-life
- Building self-esteem through empowerment and greater self-awareness
- Developing closer, more genuine relationships with friends and family
- Easing the stress and fear of hiding one’s identity and being “found out”
- Connecting with others who identity as LGBTQ
- Being part of a community and culture with others with whom you have something in common
- Helping to dispel myths and stereotypes by speaking about one’s own experience and educating others
- Being a role model to others
How will coming out affect someone’s mental health?
It’s important to be aware of your child’s mental health whenever they are experiencing a big change in their life. And coming out certainly constitutes as a big life change. Your child may experience or feel like they are being rejected by their family or friends. They could face intolerance from their social groups and be ostracized. And harassment and abuse could also occur. (Note that this abuse might not be noticeable, like emotional or sexual abuse.)
All of these possibilities can do serious harm to a child’s mental well-being. And that puts them more at risk for depression, self-harm, substance abuse, anxiety and suicide. In fact, victimization by peers may account for why LGBTQ youth are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
What should I do if I think my child is LGBTQ, but they haven’t said anything?
Don’t assume. Wait for them to come to you and disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity. You don’t know where in the process they are – or even if they are in the process at all.
Sometimes a person may label traits as being gay. I’ve heard parents make comments like, “My son likes to wear dresses – could he be gay?” or “My daughter wants to play football – does that mean anything?” It’s always better to wait for them to tell you that they are LGBTQ than rush to judgment. These traits could simply mean that the child is expressing themselves differently.
Remember, it is up to the LGBTQ individual to decide when, where, how and to whom to come out. No guilt trip or pressure should drive someone to come out before they are ready. These decisions must be made carefully, and only the person working through them can weigh the potential benefits and risks.
How can I let my child know it’s OK for them to open up to me about their sexual orientation or gender identity?
You want to remain approachable. For all children, learning about romantic attraction and sex is complicated. But it’s important to have conversations about healthy relationships early and often. Invite open discussion about sexual orientation in a way that makes your child feel loved and supported. Since beginning to work with adolescents, I have learned that they want to tell someone their stories.
There are lots of stages to coming out. And each stage is not the same for every child. Parents may be well-intentioned, but may unintentionally be putting pressure on their children. Sometimes parents have to be open to their child saying, “I don’t know.”
Above all, what’s most important is to LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN. Let your child come to you. Show a willingness and an openness to understand without assuming. Be open to being surprised and delighted. And know that when in doubt, the words “I love you” mean a lot to all children.
What should I say/do or not say/do if my child comes out to me?
Like any big event in someone’s life, finding the right words to say can be hard. But it doesn’t have to be.
- Talk and listen. Start with something simple like “I love you.” Then, let your child talk to you about how they are feeling. Provide a place for open and honest conversation.
- Offer support. You are the adult. And that means you are the person your child looks to for guidance and care. Reassure them that you are there for them for anything they made need.
- Be proactive. Look into online resources, peer groups and community support. In the last few years, more resources have become available to the LGBTQ community. At Park Nicollet, we offer comprehensive gender services. These services take into account the full journey that someone will go on. And outside of our health care system, there are other helpful options as well:
Remember, coming out is a life-long process. It’s not a one-time event. It may begin at an early age and go through a number of transitions. And it doesn’t necessarily complete when a person becomes a young adult. That’s why it’s important to keep the conversation going as needed throughout your child’s life.