You notice that your adolescent has something on their mind, and yet they have been putting you off when you ask, “What’s wrong,” until today. This time, they mustered the courage to tell you what all their friends told them they should keep to themselves. But finally, without actually looking you in the eye, you hear them faintly say the words, “I think I’m gay.”
Not knowing what to say, you offer nothing, which only makes the situation tenser. Finally, you offer up the most common response, buying yourself as much time as possible...”What?!” Your teen looks at you with tears in their eyes, and you realize that this is going to be a conversation no one could possibly prepare you for, much less offer insights. What do you say when your kid thinks they are gay?
This article is number two in a three-part series regarding some of the toughest conversations parents have to have with their kids. As a counselor of adolescents, couples, and families, I am finding that many parents are being dragged into these difficult conversations, kicking and screaming.
Part one of this series deals with when one of our children is having thoughts of self-harm, which for any parent, is a scary moment.
Part three is a different approach to the whole idea of bullying, which is a common cry for help among our youth today.
This article is also a deviation from what may be expected in the area of sexuality, but nonetheless an honest approach to how parents may respond when their child tells them they think they are confused regarding their sexual identity.
As for my “expertise” in this area? Having served as a mental health counselor for teens and adults for decades, including working in a group home setting, a private practice, university and church settings, as well as a mental health school counselor, I have learned from families that when this topic is raised, the family is usually not prepared to offer what is initially needed to a struggling teen that is looking for help and hope.
If you are reading this far, you probably are also looking for help and hope, so the purpose of this article is to offer both…not expert advice or even professional answers. Families that struggle here come from a variety of backgrounds, but usually suffer from the same ailments that turn an intimate moment of care into a struggle for power. This scenario should be avoided, and so requires advanced preparation.
You may have already had the “birds and the bees” discussion with your child, but we live in a different world now. This discussion must also be prepared to deal with same-sex issues since our children are having these conversations without us in the room.
With this challenge in mind, here are some possibilities your family can ponder in advance that many families have learned the hard way.
1. A discussion on gay issues may have less to do with sexuality and more to do with family trust.
The easy place to go when a teen reveals their interest in same-sex relationships is the teen’s sexuality. The reason that teens often put off or avoid this conversation altogether is often because they assume that is where the conversation is going to go. And the ‘elephant in the room’ is not their identity confusion or sexuality issues, but rather the obvious fact that they did NOT want to talk about this with their parents until they had no choice. Parents are usually not the first to find out about these struggles.
Families that seek therapy usually miss this all-important detail, that whatever needs to now be discussed at length has been avoided like the plague. It does not matter what the issue is if someone has made it a priority to put off the issue, even to the extent that its delay has caused additional pain. There is only one reason that someone would avoid talking with another person about an area of pain…they do not trust them. Believing they already know what to expect, kids follow their instincts and remain quiet.
Parents are often caught “off-guard” about sexuality issues in the home because they are under the impression that their kids can talk to them about anything. Often the reason that so much emotion is tied up in the realization that a child is struggling with sexuality issues is because the parent(s) cannot imagine why their child has kept this issue a secret for so long. Parents live in a dream world if they believe that there is an “open-door policy” in the home, while their teen has a ledger of issues that they hope to never have to talk about with their parents. Wanting an “open-door policy” and maintaining one are two different things, requiring two different approaches.
Not to equate oranges with apples, let me mention several issues that teens hide from parents, sexuality issues being only one of them:
· The college thing (not wanting to go or wanting to go to a different college)
· Addictions (shame, guilt, and fear of consequences)
· Resentment due to academic pressure that has gone on for a long time
· Resentment that parents have not transitioned from parenting a five-year old to a parenting a teen-ager
· Awareness that parents have one standard for their teens, while they do not live under the same set of rules (hypocrisy regarding addictions and relationships)
· Anger from being forced to go to church or participate in sports
· Fear of sharing personal dreams because it conflicts with the unfulfilled dreams parents attempt to live out through their children
· Unresolved conflict and hurts from divorce that played out in the form of leverage
Making the “gay thing” the main thing is usually a mistake. When parents focus on the area that makes a teen feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, it is usually an equation for missing the point. Families that do have the courage to confront these personal feelings of sexual confusion will likely discover that underneath the identity crisis, there is a crisis that has nothing to do with a teen’s sexuality. Families that are willing to allow the real issues (see bulleted items above) to rise to the surface will discover the trust that is an essential ingredient in having tough conversations at home.
2. First impressions are a major factor once a door of intimacy is opened.
So if parents walk into a discussion on teen sexuality and are open to the idea that there may be other issues that need to be resolved first, they will allow a door of intimacy to open. Keeping the door open, however, may be another challenge.
If a teen has harbored feelings of fear that their secret is potentially incriminating, they are expecting a conversation regarding sexuality to go badly. And though their secret may be received well with one parent, too often both parents are not on the same page. In fact, in almost every case I have worked with, one parent is more calm and willing to listen while the other jumps to conclusions, makes inflammatory statements they cannot take back, and distances themselves from their teen at the most critical time when listening is more valued than lecturing.
When our children are ready to discuss their sexuality, it is wise to not confuse listening with our approval.
When I was a kid, my mom was more open to the idea of discussing sexual issues, and my dad avoided it at all costs; it just was not his thing. The only time I remember discussing sex with my dad was when I was a senior in high school (long after my ‘locker room education’), and I asked him about how to handle a situation with a girl I was dating. In his response, it was obvious he was going to leave the sensitive stuff to mom. But I never felt shamed, embarrassed or rejected by him because of his insecurity with sexual discussions. My memory was that dad didn’t know how to talk about such things, but he was willing to try.
Now, parents have to be ready to talk, not only about sexual issues, but also same-sex issues. And because these issues have been politicized, they are highly charged. So when a teen wants to talk about sexuality, and same-sex issues are on the table, parents are more likely to feel unqualified to be objective, so they sometimes do not even try. What parents may need to remember is that discussions with their teens regarding sexuality require the same beliefs that parents had fifty years ago:
Belief # 1 – People have little understanding of relationships until their mid-20’s, or even later.
Fifty years ago, teen agers had little credibility with parents when they made relational declarations that were over their pay scale:
“I think I am ready to date.”
“I am going to move in with my fifteen year old girlfriend.”
“We need you to sign this paper so we can get married.”
“I never want to get married or have kids.”
Just because culture has sanctioned a teen’s decision-making power on a relational basis does not mean that parents have to agree. In fact, there are other areas where parents are able to maintain emotional composure during a conversation with their teen because they realize that the teen needs to mature before making such a call.
· Driving a car - Just because a teen has a driver’s permit does not mean their ability matches state guidelines for securing a license.
· Drinking - Just because there is alcohol in the house does not entitle the teen to partaking at will.
· Free time - Just because their homework is complete does not mean they are free to do whatever they want in the evenings.
· Operating equipment - Just because they know how to operate yard equipment does not mean you will allow them to do so without a parent at home.
In other words, parents know about necessary restrictions that will provide for our children’s safety, regardless of how a teen thinks or feels about it. Why is it then, that parents give decision-making power to children in areas like sexuality that could also affect the rest of their lives? Why have so many parents joined with culture in assuming that the feelings of a thirteen year old are valid enough to hand over complete power or worse yet, form battle lines? To be caught up in this tension is to miss the point, and therefore the opportunity to have a productive conversation with a teen that does not submit to a culturally politicized point of contention .
Times have not changed that much here, except fifty years ago it was not culturally acceptable to concede a child’s beliefs about their own sexuality. Fifty years later, we are still talking about a child who is not mature enough to make these kinds of decisions. So forming a battle line through a lecture, a panic-induced response, or unfair punishment is to miss a teachable moment that does not come along too often.
Until our children are in their mid-20’s they have little understanding of relationships, so our role as parents is to keep the lines of communication open, so we can continue having these valuable and helpful discussions with them into adulthood.
Belief # 2 – Parents have struggled talking with their kids about sex for a long time.
This image of a parent fumbling over their words when asked about sex may even be a generational cliché. I am not sure we are much better fielding these questions now than we were fifty years ago. I remember old television shows like “Leave It to Beaver”, and even “The Andy Griffith Show” demonstrating that this conversation may be one of every parent’s greatest fears.
I do believe, however, that our initial reaction is significant when our kids want to discuss their own sexuality.
And statements like the following do more to isolate than open a door of intimacy:
“My son could never be gay.”
“I think you’re just confused.”
“This is a perversion and a sin.”
“We’re not having this discussion.”
These are actual statements I have heard from parents when they first discovered their child was having sexual identity struggles. Certainly each family has their own set of values, and whether they are conservative or liberal, parents could choose a much better opening line when their child finally decides to have the talk. Every parent would be wise to even rehearse an immediate response if or when their child approaches them about their sexuality. The goal is not to have the talk in one talk, but to open the door for future discussions that lead to family trust.
3. If religion is a part of the discussion, it should not be the first thing mentioned.
Please take this from a church leader of over twenty-eight years; religion is one of the biggest reasons for a child’s silence when it comes to tough conversations.
Far too many kids who were raised in the church resent the notion that ‘what God thinks’ only comes up when they are in trouble. As if God has nothing to say when they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
In my experience, kids from religious homes with sexual identity issues believe that when it comes to their sexuality, they are on their own. So they talk to their peers, a teacher, a coach, and maybe a youth minister (not so much anymore), but the idea of talking with their parents about sex is like signing up for a lecture you’d just rather avoid.
As strange as it sounds, I encourage families with a religious background to initially steer away from the very aspects of the discussion that kids see coming a mile away:
· The family’s reputation
· What the Bible says (unless they bring it up)
· Who will disapprove
· How “disgusting” they might be
Basically, if our children bring up any subject, and our first reaction drives a wedge between us, our chances of “being there for them” decrease. Certainly, once trust is established and everyone feels more comfortable speaking freely, these kinds of responses will be a part of the discussion. But having served as a youth minister for years, I have heard many teens confess that their hesitation is grounded in experience. The last thing they want to do is be criticized. The first thing kids want is to be loved and to feel safe.
There is a fun family game called ‘Taboo’ in which each team’s participant is trying to describe (much like ‘Pictionary’) a word on a card. But underneath the main word is a list of words or phrases that you cannot say, or you get buzzed and therefore no points. In order to score a lot of points on your turn (5-6 is great), you have to get out of the box. In other words, if your word is “princess”, the list below may consist of the following which you are NOT allowed to say (prince, tiara, Disney, daughter). How do you get someone to say ‘princess’ without using those words?
This task is how parents must approach a discussion on sexuality when our kids are finally talking to us about something they may have put off for a while. Parents must avoid being predictable, cliché, condescending, rude, critical, or panicky. Instead, we must get out of the box, and find ways to open doors of communication, keep them open, and then entice kids to keep coming back. Teachable moments do not happen every day. When they do, it is helpful to remember that people learn best when they feel heard, comfortable, and safe. Tough conversations are great ways bridge the gap between parents and children. And as tough as this conversation can be, it is not the hardest one we will ever have. So let us not treat it like it is.
Next article: Tough Conversations (Part 3) – Anti-bullying Tactics
Tim Bolen, LPC
Tim has a private practice serving two locations in Covington, GA and Loganville, GA, and works with adolescents and adults, and families in crisis. You may contact him or set up an appointment by visiting his Psychology Today profile. Tim specializes in marriage and family issues as well as offering various groups and workshops in the Newton County area. You can also visit his website for additional resources at TriCord Hope.