By Nina Narang, MSW, LSW
Even when teens have come out to their peers about their sexuality or gender identity, it may be harder for them to tell their parents.
Having the acceptance and support of their parents can make a big difference in how they feel about themselves.
However, when a child comes out, it can be hard for parents too.
At Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, therapists can assist families in navigating the coming out process, including helping parents understand and hear what their children are telling them and tolerate any distress they may experience.
Rejection Has Consequences
Research indicates that parental and family acceptance of LGBTQ+ children is crucial to their self-esteem and overall health and well-being.
In fact, according to the Family Acceptance Project, LGBTQ+ children who have the support and acceptance of their parents are:
- Less likely to be depressed.
- Three times less likely to think about or attempt suicide.
- Less likely to have substance abuse problems.
Conversely, children whose parents and families reject them are at least:
- Three times more likely to be depressed.
- Two times more likely to think about or attempt suicide.
- One and half times more likely to engage in illegal drug use.
The Family Acceptance Project notes that family rejection increases the risk for homelessness and placement in foster care and juvenile justice facilities and can increase the risk for sexually transmitted diseases.
An Emotionally Complex Conversation
For young people, coming out to their parents and family can be an anxiety-inducing situation. They may not only fear being rejected but may also be afraid of disappointing their parents.
Often, they already have a script in their head about what they will say and how the conversation will go and feel pressure knowing that once they “say it” they can’t “unsay it.”
For parents, when a child comes out, it may catch them off guard. They may be confused and may experience feelings of grief and sadness, especially if their child identifies as a gender different from what was assigned at birth.
Parents may also feel worried about challenges and stigma their child may face throughout their life.
However, this is one of those opportunities for parents to make a significant difference in the life and future of their child: to support them, validate them, and give them unconditional love and understanding.
Both parent and child will remember the conversation —and the feelings generated by it — forever.
That’s not to say the conversation must be perfect.
Stop and Tell Them You Love Them
Many parents may not know how to react when their child comes out, and that’s OK.
What’s most important is that the child knows that they are loved and that their relationship with you is unchanged.
Parents may want to use the STOP tool that is practiced as part of dialectical behavior therapy to help people manage emotions. STOP is short for stop, take a breath, observe and proceed mindfully.
While every family is different, the following guidance may also be helpful in navigating the coming out process with your teen:
- Thank your child for confiding in you and listen respectfully.
- Acknowledge that you may not know what to say and may need a moment to collect your thoughts.
- Tell your child that you love them no matter what, and their sexuality and gender does not change that. Make sure they know you will be there to support them even if you may not understand.
- Avoid lines of questioning and comments like “Are you sure?” and “No, you’re not.” These can imply that the child is not the ultimate authority on their body and mind or could imply that they are wrong about their own feelings.
- Do not shame or judge.
- Do ask how you can support them.
- Educate yourself about your child’s sexual identity and gender identity.
- Examine your feelings with a sense of curiosity and challenge your thoughts. Is what you’re thinking or what you’re about to say an opinion or is it fact?
- Ask your child who else knows about their sexuality or identity and ask if and how you can help them tell other people and who else you can talk to about it.
- Connect with other families through community groups focused on supporting, LGBTQ people and their loved ones.
Adolescence is a natural time for kids to explore big questions about who they are and what matters to them. For children who struggle with depression or anxiety, it may feel particularly challenging to navigate coming out conversations with parents and loved ones.
Thankfully, they don’t need to figure it alone.
Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health offers evidence-based practices to help children and adults cope when affected by depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and other mental health issues. Treatment programs include a comprehensive evaluation by a board-certified psychiatrist, evidence-based treatment, medication evaluation and management as needed, group and individual therapy, family education groups, and expressive therapies such as art and music.
For more information about Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, call (888) 437-1610 or visit www.princetonhouse.org.
Nina Narang, MSW, LSW, is a licensed social worker and a primary therapist at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health.