It takes courage for a child to come out, meaning share they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ). If parents know what to say, and how to react to their LGBTQ+ child, it can have a positive impact on the child’s health and shape a positive, supportive relationship for many years to come.
“Children and teens often come out to their friends first before their parents,” explained Aylin Emmert, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist with Baptist Behavioral Health. “Some parents may have an idea the conversation will happen soon, while others are completely surprised. No matter the circumstance, there are behaviors parents can practice to support their LGBTQ+ child on their personal journey of seeking and accepting their true identity.”
Responding with affirmations
“I reassure the parents I work with that it’s OK if it takes time to process this news,” said Dr. Emmert, who also noted the same recommendations hold true for foster parents of LGBTQ+ youth.
1. Remind your child you love them. For some, responding to their child with love will be a natural response, while other parents may be uncomfortable or have an internal conflict. As best you can, remain present with your child and try to understand what they are experiencing. Remind them you love them for who they are.
“When parents create a safe space for their child to comfortably explore their gender or sexuality, it can have a very positive effect on the child’s physical and mental well-being,” said Dr. Emmert. “Research shows that family acceptance of LGBTQ+ youth correlates with greater self-esteem, social support and health for their child.”
2. Try it on. “Using a new name or preferred pronouns for your child can actually be life-saving,” said Dr. Emmert. “There’s a significant amount of research that shows this accepting behavior from parents and peers can reduce suicide, substance abuse, depression and anxiety for LGBTQ+ children and teens.”
3. Start at home and don’t feel rushed. As your child comes out to different members of your family, each person may react and move at a different pace. Dr. Emmert reassures the families she works with that this is OK!
“Some parents may experience a grief paradigm,” explained Dr. Emmert. “From the moment parents learn the assigned sex of their child at birth, they picture what their future may look like. Learning their child is LGBTQ+ can lead parents to acknowledge this picture they hold in their mind may be painted in a new way. It’s important to process this grief to ensure the child feels loved and validated at home. This is the critical starting point.”
After the immediate family at home is in a place of readiness, parents can begin to support their child coming out to other relatives, people at school, family friends and others. Make sure this happens at a pace the child is ready for as well.
4. Have your child’s back. After moving to a place of acceptance, being an advocate for your child is the next step. “Stand up for your child if you see they are being mistreated or harassed,” said Dr. Emmert. “This goes a long way in maintaining a positive family dynamic and reassuring your child that you accept them for who they are.”
5. Stay with your child on their journey. It takes time to respond to your child, educate yourself on LGBTQ+ information and share with family and friends. Leave the door open for honest, positive communication with your child. “Each child has their own trajectory and developmental course,” said Dr. Emmert. “I encourage parents to just stay with them along their journey; the child’s intention is to understand themselves.”
Avoiding harmful behaviors
When parents are shocked, as some may be when their LGBTQ+ child comes out, they may say things in the moment that have a long-term, harmful impact on the child. The following behaviors should always be avoided.
1. Physical harm. If a parent is angry, their response may be physical harm. This is never acceptable.
2. Exclusion. After your LGBTQ+ child comes out to you, continue to invite them to family dinners and time with loved ones. Don’t exclude them.
3. Blaming or shaming. “Some parents may wonder if something led to their child to being LGBTQ+,” said Dr. Emmert. “There is no evidence that being LGBTQ+ is caused by early childhood experiences or trauma, parenting styles, social media or other similar influences. Don’t blame or shame your child.”
4. Conversion efforts. “Being LGBTQ+ is a complex experience that can pull from biological and psychosocial aspects of a child’s development,” said Dr. Emmert. “A child typically starts to understand their gender identity, meaning who they feel they are inside (“true gender self”), as early as three years old. Around the time of puberty and adolescence is when we see many children become self-realized in their LGBTQ+ identity.” Medical and behavioral health experts agree attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression does not work, and can be incredibly harmful, increasing the risk of depression and suicide.
5. Outing your child before they’re ready. Your child’s coming-out journey should happen at their pace. Sometimes children may come out to one person in their immediate family, but wait to tell others. These conversations may need to occur privately. Allow your child to move at their own pace when sharing with family and friends.
“The No. 1 question I hear from parents during our sessions is, ‘How can I support my child?’” said Dr. Emmert. “That is worth praising. Many of these parents love their children and just want them to live happy, healthy lives.”
Sessions with a psychologist can help parents support their LGBTQ+ loved one and help children explore their own identity in a safe place. For LGBTQ+ resources from Baptist Health visit, baptistjax.com/patient-info/lgbt-health-resources. To contact Baptist Behavioral Health, call 904.376.3800.