How Parents Can Support Teens Who Are Coming Out
July 7, 2021
This article mentions suicide risk. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, immediately contact local crisis services or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Call The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 for 24-hour, a toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ+ youth. For more tips on what you can to do to prevent suicides, visit familyaware.org/education/suicide-prevention/.
By Thomas Maye
Pride Month may have ended in June, but that doesn’t mean the struggles for teenagers on the LGBTQ+ spectrum are over. According to a 2018 report by the Human Rights Campaign:
- 77% of LGBTQ teens report feeling down or depressed
- 70% have felt down or worthless
- 95% report trouble sleeping at night
- Only 26% “always” feel safe in their classrooms.
Depression, feelings of worthlessness, and unrelenting stress increase the risk of suicide. The Trevor Project notes that queer teenagers are significantly more likely to attempt suicide: teens from unaccepting families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt to end their lives.
In an often-intolerant society, feeling welcome at home is crucial in preventing or reducing the risks of mood disorders and self-harming behaviors. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bases its suicide prevention strategy on promoting individual, family, and community connectedness. As a caregiver, you have an essential role in supporting your teen’s wellbeing and in preventing suicidal behaviors.
Caregivers can feel overwhelmed trying to protect their children and promote their mental wellness while still allowing them space and autonomy to grow. Add to that what may be complex feelings about sexual and gender identities and caregivers can really have their hands – and their minds – full. Here, we offer suggestions for navigating the time when your teen may open up to you about their sexual and gender identities.
What should I do if I think my child is LGBTQ+?
Aim to let your teen come out on their own terms. You may have your suspicions or overheard a few telling conversations, but it’s important to allow them a safe space to discuss their identity in a way that makes them comfortable. Don’t “out” them or try to force an answer from them.
They may take a while to feel comfortable sharing their identity, but try not to take the length of time personally. With negative media representations and attitudes among community members and friends, among other factors, coming out can be challenging even in the most accepting families. If you have reservations about accepting a family member who is LGBTQ+, take the time to learn more. (Read the next section, for a start.) Your ability to accept your teen for who they are will position you to better support them and their mental health and will help to foster a stronger relationship between the two of you.
When your teen comes out, start by listening. Don’t interrupt, talk over them, or invalidate their feelings by questioning them or insisting it’s just a phase. Although sexuality can be fluid and change over time, coming out takes a great amount of courage It’s unlikely your child would go through all the effort and risk rejection for a passing thought. Brushing their legitimate feelings aside can alienate your children and make them feel unwelcome being their true selves around you. Not only does this put your relationship in peril, it also increases your teen’s risk of depression and engaging in suicidal behaviors.
But what about my own emotions and challenges?
You may be taken aback by the news or afraid for their future. You’ve likely envisioned a life for your child, so it’s natural to have some initial feelings of grief or doubt. It’s ok if you don’t have everything figured out from the start, and some mistakes are to be expected while you both adjust to the new stage in your relationship. Tell your child that you love them and that you will make a genuine effort to learn about and understand their identity. Parent support groups, such as Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), can help you work through your conflicted feelings and provide comfort through your anxiety for the future.
If your family or culture is not accepting of those who identify as LGBTQ+, know that those beliefs do not have to define your response to your teen’s identity or your relationship following their disclosure. Although many parents have religious concerns, faith and sexuality don’t necessarily need to be at odds. The Internet has made it easier to find congregations from a variety of denominations that accept and affirm worshippers who identify as LGBTQ+. For instance, gaychurch.org has an expansive directory of LGBTQ+ affirming Christian churches.
Remember that your willingness and ability to maintain connectedness with your teen can have powerful protective effects for their mental health and wellbeing.
What should I do going forward?
Keep showing support and love for your child. LGBTQ+ people continue to face challenges in society, so coming out is just one step on their life’s journey. In fact, given there are always fellow students, new friends, coworkers, and so on, coming out is an ongoing process. Members of the LGBTQ+ community constantly need to assess whether they are safe and whether the people around them will accept them. This can take an emotional and mental toll, especially for young people just learning to navigate in the world.
Next, continue the conversation. Ask them if they want help or resources, and, if so, how you can best provide that help for them. You don’t want them to feel as though you’ve pushed their sexuality or identity under the rug like a dirty secret. They should be able to feel safe coming to you for support, particularly where their mental health is concerned.
No one likes being typecast by labels and stereotypes. Sexuality and gender identity are only facets of who they are, so don’t try to force certain roles or expectations onto them.
Finally, try to allow them to express themselves as they see fit. As people embrace the identity they’ve suppressed, it’s natural to develop new interests or friend groups they once forbade themselves from exploring. Adolescence is a time for discovery and reinvention. Give your teenager space to find out how to express themselves on their own, whether that means decking out their room in rainbows, or simply getting comfortable in their own skin. Your acceptance and support can make a world of difference for their mental health.
Thomas Maye is a freelance writer passionate about mental health, wellness, and social justice. Based in Hudson, MA, he graduated with a degree in English and journalism at Framingham State University in 2020. He can be contacted for article and blog writing assignments on his website, tmayewriting.wordpress.com, or his Twitter, @tmayewriting.
FFDA uses the acronym LGBTQ+ to mean people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and others who do not identify as heterosexual and/or cisgender (having the same gender identity as the sex they were assigned at birth).
- Refer to our suicide prevention page for warning signs and important resources
- Find out what you can do to support LGBTQ+ youth at risk of depression and suicide
- See our list of resources for LGBTQ+ people