As a parent, you want to support your child as they grow into who they will be. You’re ready to help them discover their passions (art or archery?), career aspirations (firefighter or pediatrician?) and favorite condiment (ketchup or ranch dressing?). That’s why you sign them up for extracurriculars, share exciting experiences and discuss important topics at the dinner table.

But when it comes to a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity, it’s harder to know what to do and the words to use. Perhaps your child has come out as LGBTQ+. Maybe you’ve noticed certain behaviors that have you wondering if they identify as LGBTQ+.

You want to be supportive, but you also have questions and want to keep your child safe. Below, we cover common questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in children – and how to support children who are questioning or identify as LGBTQ+.

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. A person who identifies as LGBTQ+ may have a vague sense of feeling different as a young child. But they may not be able to clearly label it until they get older.

Gender identity

People who identify as transgender have a gender identity that doesn’t match the male or female sex they were assigned at birth. They may feel that their sense of self and who they are differs.

This feeling can start at the age that young children start labeling themselves in terms of gender: “Am I a boy or girl?” Or these feelings can start as children grow into middle school, high school and even young adulthood.

Questions about gender identity may start as their bodies begin to go through puberty, usually during middle school or high school. If a child develops secondary sex characteristics that don’t match their sense of self, it can cause discomfort and distress.

Some children may not feel safe and supported to explore and share their feelings about their gender identity at home or school. So they may not come out as identifying as transgender until young adulthood.

Sexual orientation

As an adult, an LGBTQ+ person may look back at their childhood and remember attractions they had at young ages. Most adults who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual were about 12 years old when they realized they might not be heterosexual or straight, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.

But it’s often not until they’re older that they begin identifying as LGBTQ+. Most people in the Pew Research survey said weren’t sure they were gay, lesbian or bisexual until their mid to late teens. And, for some people, their sexual identity 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 identify as LGBTQ+ at a young age?

There’s no right or wrong age for a child to identify as LGBTQ+ or to share their sexual or gender identity with others. Every child is different, and it may take them more, or less, time to understand and embrace who they are.

How will coming out affect someone’s mental health?

It makes sense to be concerned about the mental health of your child. The pressures to fit in, do well in school, or work and adjust to life after the COVID-19 pandemic have led to extremely high rates of depression and anxiety in teens – and in young people in general.

Additionally, people who identify as LGBTQ+ have mental health concerns at a higher rate than the general population. So for children facing realities of growing up and dealing with their sexual or gender identity, life can seem especially overwhelming.

Deciding when to come out is probably the single-hardest decision for children identifying as LGBTQ+. On one hand, they’re afraid of being rejected by friends and family. On the other hand, staying silent can cause all kinds of unhealthy emotions.

Challenges that LGBTQ+ students face when they come out

If your child comes out as LGBTQ+, people may treat them differently, and these changes in behaviors and attitudes can be extremely hurtful. Examples of anti-LGBTQ+ behaviors include:

  • Being gossiped about or discriminated against – According to the Trevor Project Survey, 73% of LGBTQ+ youth experience discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity at least once in their lifetime.
  • Experiencing harassment, abuse or physical violence – In the Trevor Project Survey, 36% of LGBTQ+ youth said they’ve been physically threatened or harmed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Being shunned by family or thrown out of their home – LGBTQ+ youth are twice as likely to experience homelessness as other kids.
  • Threatened with conversion therapy – Parents may demand youth get conversion therapy to “cure” their gender identity or attraction to people of the same sex. Sadly, 17% of LGBTQ+ youth in the Trevor Project Survey experienced this.
  • Being rejected by religious, social or other communities and groups – Only 15% of LGBTQ+ youth said that their community was very accepting in the Trevor Project Survey.

All of these outcomes can do serious harm to a child’s mental well-being. And that puts them more at risk for self-harm, substance abuse and mental health conditions. In fact, LGBTQ+ youth who were physically threatened or harmed, discriminated against, or subjected to conversion therapy were twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who weren’t victims of anti-LGBTQ+ behaviors, according to the Trevor Project survey.

Coming out can be extremely valuable for transgender mental health. When a trans youth takes steps to match their life (and possibly their body) with their gender identity, it helps calm the conflict between who they are and how the world sees them. And when others use the pronouns that match their gender identity, it can lead to huge boosts in quality of life and greatly reduce the likelihood that they’ll try suicide.

Benefits of coming out 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+
  • Greater comfort with their sexuality
  • Less substance abuse

How community and family acceptance affects LGBTQ+ mental health

When kids are surrounded by love and support, they have the strength to get through the difficulties that come with growing up, discovering who they are and sharing their true self to the world.

But the world is not always kind when people come out as LGBTQ+. So for youth who identify as LGBTQ+, it’s especially important that they have caring family and friends to see them through the process. In fact, family acceptance and community support can be the difference between life and death for some LGBTQ+ youth.

According to the Trevor Project Survey, 45% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered suicide in the last year, and 14% tried. But youth who felt high levels of support from their family attempted suicide at less than half the rate compared to those who felt low or moderate levels of support.

Unfortunately, most LGBTQ+ kids don’t feel supported. Only 37% of youth say their homes are LGBTQ+-affirming, according to the Trevor Project survey. But given that you’re reading this, it’s clear that you want to be a family who supports your LGBTQ+ child.

What to do if you think your child is LGBTQ+ or questioning

Learning about romantic attraction and sex is complicated, and it’s normal for children to question their sexual orientation and gender identity as they mature into the people that they will be.

It’s not always easy for a child to uncover their gender and sexual identity, but the process will be less stressful for your child if they feel like they have your love and support – no matter what.

Here are some of the best ways to show support for your child who identifies as LGBTQ+ or is questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation:

Celebrate people in the LGBTQ+ community

If your child knows you support the LGBTQ+ community, they may be more comfortable talking to you if they’re questioning their sexual orientation or gender orientation.

A good start may be to celebrate people who identify as LGBTQ+. Talk respectfully about people in the LGBTQ community and their contributions to acting, music, gaming or whatever else your child is interested in. This may prompt questions or conversations about gender identity or sexual orientation.

Be open to questions

Try to be approachable and show that you’re open to their questions. Invite open discussion about sexual orientation and gender in a way that makes your child feel loved and supported, regardless of who they are and who they love.

Have conversations about different types of healthy relationships early and often. Show a willingness and an openness to understand without assuming. Be open to being surprised and delighted. Above all, listen, listen and listen some more.

Support them in their coming-out process

There is no one “right” way to support a child when they come out. The truth is that it depends a lot on your child. There are many stages to coming out, and the process is different for everyone.

It’s natural to want to help your child as they struggle with questions about gender identity and sexual orientation. But it’s also important to respect their privacy and understand if they’re not ready to discuss their thoughts and feelings.

Pay attention to your child. Does it seem like they’d like to talk to you about their sexual orientation or gender identity? Clues can come from observation, comments, family friends or your child’s peers.

When it feels right, start a conversation with your child. Invite them to share their thoughts and feelings with you. Try asking direct questions. It’s possible your child won’t be able to answer your questions or they may be uncomfortable sharing their feelings. So, let them know that you’re ready to talk when they are. Offer as much openness and support as you can while giving them space.

It’s best to follow your child’s lead. But if it’s been a while, it’s okay to ask if they want to talk about their gender identity or sexual orientation. Your child might be waiting for you to bring it up again.

Your child’s doctor or pediatrician is a great resource for you and your child as they explore their sexual orientation and gender identity. When you go in for an appointment, ask your child if they want to see the doctor alone – it can be a great time for them to get private questions answered. Another great resource is a mental health specialist. They can help your child explore their gender identity and sexual orientation as they get older.

If you notice signs of mental illness in your child, definitely make sure they have someone to talk to – whether that’s their doctor or a mental health specialist.

Make sure they know they have your full 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 always there for them.

Accept their friends and partners

Another powerful way to show your support is to care about the people that your child chooses to spend time with.

When LGBTQ+ youth in the Trevor Project Survey were asked about how parents and caregivers made them feel supported, being “welcoming to their LGBTQ+ friends or partners” was the most common answer.

Offer therapy

Research shows that 82% of kids who identify as LGBTQ+ would like mental health care – but 60% who want therapy don’t get it. So if you feel uncomfortable asking your child if they would like therapy, don’t be. Chances are that your child would like to talk to a mental health professional about their gender identity and sexual orientation.

A therapist can help your child work through questions and mental health concerns – and provide support for when they’re ready to come out. Just say something like, “You can talk to me about anything, but I know there are things that you may be uncomfortable talking to me about. If you’d like, we can find someone, like a therapist, you can talk to.”

Then when you’re looking for a mental health specialist, try to find one with experience working with LGBTQ+ youth (this information is usually listed on website bios). If you child is transgender or gender diverse, see if you can find a therapist who has experience with gender identity. It’s also a good idea to involve your child in making the final decision when choosing a therapist. After all, they’re the one who will be sharing personal information with them.

Find gender-affirming care

If your child identifies as transgender and gender diverse, you may wish to switch to a primary care or gender medicine clinician who specializes in gender health for your child’s wellness care, especially if you’re interested in exploring gender affirming medications such as hormone blockers and hormone replacement therapy.

If your family choses to proceed with medications, a behavioral health therapist who specializes in gender health is a great resource to help support your child and you through gender-affirming therapy.

Be proactive

Look into online resources, peer groups and community support – not just for your child but also for you. Here are ones to keep in mind:

Encourage healthy eating

Youth who identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely to develop eating disorders such as binge-eating and purging. Those most at risk include boys who identify as gay or bisexual, and kids who identify as transgender.

There’s no single reason why people identifying as LGBTQ+ may have eating disorders. It can be related to the fear of coming out or rejection from family and friends. Kids who are transgender may struggle with food because their sense of self doesn’t match their physical characteristics or sex assigned at birth.

You can help your child by having regular family mealtimes and stocking up on healthy foods that they like. Talking to a mental health therapist may help too. Another option is a specialized eating disorder program from Melrose Center or a similar clinic.

We’re here for you, your child and your family

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 several transitions. And it doesn’t necessarily end when your child becomes a young adult. That’s why it’s important to keep the conversation going throughout your child’s life.

Let us know how we can support you and your child as they grow up into the person they’re meant to be.