by Geoff Plint, MA, RCC
LGBTQ. GLBTQIA? LGBTQQIP2SAA???!! Trying to get a handle on the range of sexual and gender identities for some parents, caregivers, and supports is no 5th Grade Spelling Bee. With progressive social action comes radical redefinition of what it means to be “Loud & Proud” in the 21st century. If you have ever felt lost, overwhelmed, or simply unsure of how to support a child, teen, or adult coming out, you are not alone.
Part 1: On Coming Out – A Personal, Parental Response
When I first came out, my mother feared for my safety; for her, growing up in the 1970s meant men who had sex with other men could be openly assaulted and harassed on the streets. My father? He emphasized the importance of my sexual health and wellbeing:
“Make sure you wear a condom…and don’t just sleep with anyone”.
I can only imagine how the visceral scars of the HIV/AIDS crisis, wounds that invariably impacted heterosexual men outside of the viral epicentre, informed his perspective.
Research on parent’s response to LGBTQ+ youth offers several clear and consistent messages:
- Defensive, reactive, or rejecting responses impair family connection and contact
- Culture* and upbringing, as opposed to a particular teen’s sexual and gender orientation, play a key role in predicting the direction of response.
- The more positive and warm the response, the greater impact on your teen’s sense of healthy self-esteem, perception of social support, and general wellbeing (including both physical and mental health).
- Positive responses help buffer teen’s from the all too common, and increasingly alarming, implications of rejection: depression, risky substance use, and suicidal ideation.
*Culture in this particular instance includes all of the elements – status, country of origin, region, family practices, religion/spirituality, values – that make you, YOU. Understanding how the people around you spoke and speak about coming out can help you with the type of reaction that can best support your teen.
Strike a Chord: Common Themes for Coming Out
Since those early days of negotiating my sexuality, I have had the opportunity to nuance the conversation with my parents to a place of celebration and sharing, though it has been a journey. In my work with teens and families, similar fears and uncertainties show up in the room. Have you ever felt or wondered:
- I think my teen is gay – how do I even bring this up?
- Did I do something to cause this? Is this my fault?
- Who can I tell? What will everyone think?
- Will they be safe in the world?
- I feel afraid, unsure, and I just don’t know what to say
Know that these questions, feelings, and reactions apply beyond the caregiver-teen relationship. Anyone who has the honour – and I select that word intentionally – of receiving the courage and trust it takes to come out is placed in a vulnerable position. The “coming-out” process implicates more than just the person sharing. You will likely experience your own internal reactions as you begin thinking about who to tell, when, and how. If these themes strike a chord somewhere inside, know you are part of a collective community that understands coming out never truly ends; though, it does start to feel easier.
Part 2: The Model Carer is You
Ask my mother and she will tell you I have a deep love for acronyms. They serve as powerful tools for memory retention and they offer an opportunity to play with language: empowerment at its finest. I offer you the CARER acronym as a starting point for offering support to a teen placing their trust in you at this vulnerable juncture of self-awareness.
Connect, Affect, Reflect and Express Respect (CARER)
- Connect: It is incredibly easy to get lost in the details of the unexpected and new. I encourage you to connect with the part of the sharing experience that is happening in moment, even if the content of what your teen is revealing triggers discomfort. While your first reaction may be shock or disbelief, your top priority is to consciously join with the being in front of you. Having trouble? Notice the rawness, the vulnerability, the courage, the trust, and the beauty in your safe relationship that allowed what was just said, to be said.
- Affect: Thanks to collective socialisation and your upbringing, you may experience an array of challenging feelings when your teen comes out to you. You may look for blame. You may feel afraid. You may feel a sense of anger, revulsion, or shame. The thought of losing the person who you thought you knew so well can be numbing and isolating. This collection of emotional responses is known as affect, and while they are not inherently negative, they are indicators for you to seek community care and support. Flag these feelings for later to debrief with someone you trust.
- Reflect: Asking questions and occupying a position of curiosity places you in the best position to learn and understand. You are looking to find ways to acknowledge and affirm the courage it took to come out. It is important to give space for your teen to speak their full experience and to know that you get it. Reflective questions involve repeating back information you gathered during your talk and using it to ask questions. They serve as an incredible tool to give power to your teen’s experience and to show you are listening. How do you do it? Here is a quick example:
Teen: “There’s this girl in class that I’ve been hanging out with…she makes me feel excited…but I still really like Tim too…I don’t know.”
You: “I hear you saying that you are excited by both Tim and this girl in your class, though, it feels uncertain right now. Did I capture it?”
There are many ways to reflect back what you hear and it can feel clunky at first. Notice the use of “I” statements to express what you are hearing. Keep your tone similar to your teen; use the same words if you can. Lastly, feel welcome to check in for understanding.
- Express Respect: The key to ending a strong conversation, and keeping the lines of communication open for future talks starts and ends with respect. You can feel unsure of how to proceed next, take time to learn more, and value your teen all at once. Openly use any of these prompts or play with your own.
- “Thank you for sharing.”
- “I appreciate you reaching out.”
- “Know that I am always here if you need to talk further.”
- “Is there anyone else you would like me to involve in this?”
- “Here is how I would like to proceed…”
- “I love you and I want to take the time to properly gather as much knowledge and resources as I can.”
- “How would you like to proceed?”
If your teen has come out to you, it is likely they have come to terms with their sexual and gender identity enough to feel comfortable having a conversation. Your responsibility is to contain your feelings and reactions in the most authentic way. While you may need time to adjust to the news, there is plenty you can do to maintain a strong connection with your teen AND look after yourself. Seek help: talk with friends and loved ones you trust. Consult with support workers and health professionals. Ultimately, remember to reassure your teen that their relationship with you is sacred and will continue to be important, no matter what.
Geoff Plint, MA, is a Registered Clinical Counsellor practicing on unceded Coast Salish land in Victoria, BC. Geoff offers a holistic, and comprehensive alternative to the incomplete and unanswered questions of human sexuality and relationships for teens and families across the lifespan. www.geoffplint.com
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