The coming out process for a GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) adolescent can be a challenging moment for not only the teenager, but also their family and friends. It is a time of high emotions that can run the gamut from confusion, shock, disbelief, rejection, and anger, to acceptance, calmness, understanding, and concern. It is important at this potentially fragile time for parents and teens to be kind to each other and create room for this new information and identity to be processed.
Adolescence is a time when feelings and thoughts of sexuality become intense and confusing. For many gay teens, feeling different from their friends creates a pressure to fit in and keep their sexual orientation secret. They can fear rejection, discrimination and even violence. It is important to create a space of safety and acceptance for them to better understand their feelings.
The process of coming out usually starts with the sharing of feelings with a close friend or family member. Although coming out is a normal step in the development of a gay or lesbian adolescent, many different issues can come to the forefront for your child including:
• Questioning their sexual identity. Am I gay, lesbian, or bisexual?
• Who can I trust in this process?
• Will my family and friends accept this new information?
• Am I ready to be sexually active?
• Will I be safe sharing this information with others?
With all of these questions and others filling a gay teen’s thoughts, it may be challenging to come out in a well thought out and structured manner. The coming out conversation may be a reaction to other issues or may be presented in a confrontational manner.
As parents it is important to create a supportive environment for your gay or lesbian teen to speak about what’s going on with them. It is just as hard for them to share this new identity with you as they are still often questioning their own perspectives. When your teenager shares that they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual:
• Try to stay calm. This is probably a moment of shock for all of you. Leave space for it to sink in without having to react immediately.
• Let them know that you understand how hard this conversation is for them.
• Don’t expect them to have all the answers about what it means to be gay for them.
• Know that your own personal beliefs may be challenged in this moment but it is still the same child whom you love sitting across from you.
• Consider family therapy or individual therapy with a qualified counselor who works with gay teens and their families during the coming out process.
• If you have questions about their sexuality, educate yourself. The Internet is a great source of information on the subject. There are also many books available on the subject. Most cities also have a local chapter of PFLAG (Parents & Friends of Lesbians And Gays), which offers a variety of resources and information.
A challenge for parents in being available for their gay teens coming out process is being able to express and address their own fears, concerns, and emotional experience. Parents have often projected a future dream of weddings, grandchildren and traditional development for their child. Realizing that this dream may not come about in the manner they anticipated can shake parents up and bring many questions to the forefront.
Parents may need help for themselves while going through the coming out process with their gay or lesbian teenager. Working with a therapist who specializes in assisting gay teens and their families can be of benefit in relieving parent’s fears and stress. Therapy also provides a forum for parents to ask questions and gather information, while easing their emotional distress.
One of the biggest concerns of any teen in the process of coming out is whether their parents will accept them for who they are. Listen to their feelings as they share this new part of themselves. Although it may feel uncomfortable for all of you at first, an acceptance of their newly shared identity can develop over time creating a stronger family and a more open relationship based on truth and understanding.