Congratulations! Your child obviously feels they can talk to you about this important part of their identity - coming out. This is a good sign for your relationship.
It may be hard for you to deal with at first but it’s important to make sure you tell them you’re happy that they feel comfortable talking to you about this and that you’re open to learning more about it as well.
Why do teenagers need to ‘come out’?
Questioning our sexuality or gender identity is a very difficult process. By the time your child is a teenager they’ll know that some people don’t like or accept people who are different. They may feel like they have to hide what they’re feeling. They may feel guilt, shame, and isolated because of this part of themselves they can’t do anything to change.
By telling someone, or ‘coming out’, they’re taking the first steps in accepting themselves, and taking back some ownership of who they are. It’s often a very hard step for them to take, because they’re probably very worried they’re going to be rejected or hated for being this way.
By admitting their feelings and opening up to you, they’re making it possible for you to show them you love them and accept them as they are. If you can do that, it will make this process much easier for them.
Common feelings parents have when their teenager comes out
It’s normal to feel a lot of different things when your child admits they are questioning their sexuality or gender. Some parents feel guilt, shame, embarrassment, denial, doubt or worry. That’s normal. So is feeling acceptance, joy, or happiness.
There is no right or wrong way to feel, but it’s important to understand and think about what you’re feeling, and why.
Things you may be feeling include:
- being afraid for your child’s safety, or how they’ll be treated
- like your child isn’t the person you thought they were, and this leads to a sense of loss
- being burdened by the weight of helping them deal with these feelings
- uncomfortable with the idea of it, because you don’t understand it and you were brought up to think it was wrong.
Many parents ask themselves if it was their fault somehow, if they were too permissive or did something wrong. Current research supports the belief that sexual attraction and feelings about our gender are hard-wired from birth, there is nothing you could have done to prevent your child from having to go through this.
Common questions parents have when teenagers come out to them
Why did they have to tell me?
Some families feel like they were happier when they didn’t know, like that time was problem free. Remember, they were going through this alone, probably distressed and ashamed. Now you can help them.
Why didn’t they tell us before?
People don’t just know these things straight away; it takes time to put it into words and to accept it. Many fear admitting it to themselves, because of potential negative reactions from friends or family, or how they used to feel about the subject. They probably told you as soon as they were able.
Why does it make me uncomfortable?
The beliefs and opinions we’ve grown up with are very strong, and hard to shake off. Our society says a lot of different things, based on fear, or stereotypes. The best way to become comfortable with this truth about your child is to listen to them, and to learn more about it.
Will they be rejected, or physically attacked?
Even though attitudes towards same-sex attracted and transgender people are getting much better, there is still a risk that someone will target your child because of their sexuality or gender. It is understandable to be afraid of discrimination, rejection or violence they might be exposed to.
In the end, it’s better that they’re supported and accepted to be who they are, so that they grow up happy and confident.
Will they get AIDs, or get a disease?
No disease can identify someone’s sexuality or gender identity. All teenagers should be taught about safe sex, how to use condoms, and should learn about sexually transmitted infections and how to treat them, so they can be safe.
What about family and friends?
If they want your help telling extended family or friends, but you're worried about how it will be received, consider calling or writing beforehand. Let extended family and friends know that they are welcome to ask you anything in private, but regardless of their personal feelings, you expect them to be kind and respectful to your child.
Dos and don’ts when your child comes out to you
- do express love and support for your child’s feelings or choice. Allow them to decide how they feel and how to express their gender, without pressure or unspoken messages
- do insist on respect within the family. With immediate and extended family, it is vital that you accept only kindness and respect for your child
- do maintain open and honest communication with your teenager. Show a genuine sense of interest in how they see themselves, what they are feeling and experiencing. It will show you are there for them
- don’t refuse to accept them as they are, or behave in an unkind or disrespectful way. This can damage their self-worth, and their trust in you
- don’t exclude them, block access to friends, or refuse to talk about this part of their lives. You can’t stop them from feeling this way, and trying to will hurt them deeply
- don’t blame them for harassment they receive. They are not responsible for the actions and beliefs of other people
- don’t discuss any doubts or negative feelings with them. Discuss them with other adults and not your child
- don’t tell other people if you haven’t asked your teenager. They have the right to decide when and how people find out.
Look after yourself
It’s okay to have doubts about what your child is going through and whether you can help them in the right way. Reach out to other adults who have experience with sexuality or gender identity that you feel comfortable talking to.
If you have friends who are the same sexual orientation as your child, you might ask them to share some of their experience with you so you can both learn about it together.
Dealing with school and the community
Who should you tell?
The golden rule is don’t tell anyone your teenager doesn’t want you to. Other family members may have questions, but your child’s trust in you depends on you being considerate of their feelings and their right to control how they come out to others.
Ask your teenager who they want to tell and how they want to do it, and how you can help.