For LGBTQ kids and young people questioning their sexual or gender identity, the love and support they receive at home makes all the difference. Parents who embrace their child’s journey and help them access the tools they need can shape their future in profound and positive ways, experts say.
“Make sure they know you love them,” said Luca Maurer, director of the LGBT Education, Outreach & Services Program at Ithaca College. “Studies have shown the powerful effect of having accepting family members. And the opposite is true, too. LGBTQ young people who had rejecting parents are at a much higher risk of experiencing negative health outcomes.”
Research from the Family Acceptance Project found lesbian, gay and bisexual young adults who experienced family rejection during adolescence were eight times more likely to have attempted suicide, six times more likely to report high levels of depression, two times more likely to use illegal drugs and three times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection.1
Maurer is quick to note that parents of LGBTQ youth often go through a process of their own when their child initially comes out. And they may never truly understand their child’s lifestyle. That’s OK.
“An accepting parent doesn’t have to jump up the minute their child comes out and become president of the local LGBTQ support group,” said Maurer. “That’s not the definition of acceptance. You don’t have to understand it. It can be a parent who simply says, ‘This is a little surprise’ or ‘I didn’t expect that, but I love you, and we’ll figure this out together.’”
Irene Brank, the mother of a transgender daughter and director of business operations for MassMutual U.S., agrees.
“I made some mistakes,” she said. “It was very difficult for me to tell my husband and I kick myself now, but I freaked out.” Now a tireless advocate for the LGBTQ community, Brank laughs when she recalls the vision she had for her kids when they were born. “We never cared which gender our kids were, but I always sort of thought they’d go to college, find a spouse and have children and follow a traditional path,” she said. “Well, my oldest was never going to go to college and chose a career path that was different from what I expected and my other child had surgery, so we weren’t able to say ‘It’s a girl!’ until she was 18 or 19 years old.”
But love, as they say, conquers all.
“Sam didn’t choose this path, because she didn’t wake up one day and say ‘I want to experience a living nightmare for the next three years, or choose a life that is 10 times more difficult for myself, or live in danger or be ridiculed just because I feel like it,’” said Brank. “As parents, we didn’t choose this path either, but we’re in it together, and it’s the only way to make it work.”
As your LGBTQ or questioning child moves from adolescence to adulthood, experts and insiders below weigh in on what it means to be their champion and love without limit.
Find good health care providers
Coming to terms with one’s gender or sexual identity can be a difficult and confusing time, especially for school-age kids. Beyond support from their family, LGBTQ youth need trained counselors, therapists, or other health care professionals in their corner who can help them process their feelings in a healthy way and develop a positive self-image, said Brank.
“Some of the best advice I give people is to get a good pediatrician whom you love and trust,” she said, noting parents should interview the providers personally to be sure they’re experienced with the issues that impact the LGBTQ community. “These are pretty specific health issues. Is this their first LGBT patient, or have they worked with hundreds?”
Once they determined that their daughter was not gay, but transgender, Brank said her pediatrician put them in touch with a gender therapist who was instrumental in helping her daughter through the transition. “That was so important for us early on,” she said.
Maurer said parents and siblings (on an age-appropriate basis) should also get the facts about what it means to be gay, bisexual, or transgender. Learn the correct terminology to communicate effectively, push yourself to look beyond the stereotypes of LGBTQ individuals, and educate yourself about your child’s journey of self-discovery. Talk to other parents with an LGBTQ child and generally make an effort to be informed.
Three websites Maurer recommends are: Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network. The Center for LGBT Education, Outreach & Services offers a list of additional resources and services on its website as well.
Keep them safe
Your job as a parent, of course, is also to keep your children safe online and offline, a potentially bigger challenge for LGBTQ youth.
Adolescent school victimization due to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender status is common and is associated with compromised health and social adjustment. Indeed, according to the Family Acceptance Project, bullying by classmates is specifically linked to higher rates of young adult depression, increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, and suicidal ideation, especially among males.2
In an article entitled “Tips for Parents of LGBTQ Youth,” Johns Hopkins pediatricians and adolescent medicine specialists Renata Arrington Sanders and Errol Fields suggest parents stay alert for signs their child is being bullied, which may appear as behavioral problems, declining grades or unexplained absences in school. If you have any concerns, contact a teacher, guidance counselor, or school administrator immediately.
The Trevor Project also offers a 24/7 crisis hotline and suicide prevention lifeline for LGBTQ and questioning young people ages 13 to 24: 866-488-7386.
The experts at Johns Hopkins note that many LGBTQ youth turn to social media and phone apps to connect with others because they’re often discouraged from being open about their lifestyle. Some online outlets, however, including dating apps, may be inappropriate for teens.3
Monitor what they’re doing on their devices and talk with them about the potential dangers of meeting people online. “More importantly, understand that kids turn to these apps if they feel like they don’t have anyone else to talk to,” said Fields. “Be available so that your child doesn’t need to look elsewhere for guidance and support.”
The article suggests that parents get involved in their child’s life, meet their friends, ask questions, and show an interest in how they spend their days.
Advocate for your child
Parents should also find out what resources exist locally and within their school that may enable their child to form healthy friendships with others in their community. A community center with LGBTQ groups or a local bookstore that carries LGBTQ books may be a good start, said Maurer.
At school, where adolescents spend nearly as much time as they do at home, the specialists at Johns Hopkins also suggest parents advocate for a gay-straight alliance (GSA), which has been shown to make schools safer and improve performance among LGBTQ students.
Similarly, they suggest parents maintain frequent contact with teachers, push for more inclusive sex education and speak up. “Parents forget that they have a huge voice in the school system,” said Sanders, in the article. “You do have power. If there’s a problem and the school isn’t taking your concerns seriously, go to the principal or even the school board.”
Get help for yourself if needed
The experts at Johns Hopkins acknowledge that providing support can be challenging at times. It’s a lot for parents to process.
Feelings of stress, confusion, or concern are natural, but don’t pull back when you’re needed most, they say.
“Remember, your child is having more difficulty with this than you are,” said Fields, “and your duty as a parent comes first.”
If you’re struggling, they suggest you reach out for help. Like Brank, team up with a pediatrician, a counselor at school, close family members, or even community organizations that can help you process your own feelings in a healthy way, so you can be more emotionally available for your child.
Don’t fence them in
Supporting your child is one thing, but Maurer cautions parents not to make it “all about” their sexuality or gender identity.
“I work with young people all the time and they all say they just want to be seen as a whole person, multidimensional,” he said, noting it’s natural for people at any age to become focused on LGBTQ issues when they first come out. “Reducing a person to just one characteristic is never a good idea.”
Parents should encourage their LGBTQ child to develop socially, play sports, engage in hobbies, hold part-time jobs, and generally just be a kid. Don’t let their sexual or gender identity be the thing that defines them, said Maurer.
Learn the laws
Another way you can help, said Maurer, is to learn the local, state, and national laws and policies that pertain to LGBTQ people so you understand your child’s rights. If you travel with your child internationally, you have a responsibility to find out what rights and risks exist in the destination country as well. (Learn more: LBGTQ international travel tips)
If you are ready to join the fight, Maurer said consider teaming up with a nonprofit group to help extend equal rights to the LGBTQ community and act as a champion for your child, noting that the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is a good first step.
Finally, parents should always ask their child before they “out them” to others, said Maurer. Don’t betray their trust by telling friends and family members about their lifestyle before your child is ready. Let your child call the shots.
That’s good advice, says Brank.
“I think my daughter, Sam, would say we were the best parents she could have asked for, but there is one thing we could have done better: let her take the wheel,” said Brank. “There were many times that I did not, like when she told me she was going to come out to her dad and I kept suggesting she wait just a few more weeks. Or, after her transition when we were discussing how she would tell the world and I thought we should send out postcards or letters to family. She said she was just going to post it on Facebook. I said you can’t do that, but she did it anyway and she was right.”
Parents should support their child’s journey, but they should not try to impose their will.
“I look back at myself now and think, what a fool,” said Brank. “You have to let your kid be who they want to be.”
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This article was originally published June 2017. It has been updated.
1 Family Acceptance Project, “Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Young Adults,” 2009.
2 Family Acceptance Project, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adolescent School Victimization: Implications for Young Adult Health and Adjustment,” 2010
3 Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Tips for Parents of LGBTQ Youth”