Outside, a late snow had fallen, even as the first signs of spring had already come up. Inside the retreat center, we were toasty, sipping on coffee and cocoa during a break. I had hosted enough weekend seminars to recognize the signs of someone who needed to talk. One particular father was opening up to me, his brows knit in confusion: “I keep asking myself, ‘Why would my daughter make such a drastic decision?’”
He wasn’t the only one with questions, grief and worry. I have spent many years working with Christian parents whose children come out as members of the LGBTQ+ community. During our weekend retreats and one-on-one sessions together, these parents have felt lost and utterly confused and sometimes even explosive anger..
There are many questions and internal hurdles to tackle when a child comes out. So to help you continue your parent/child journey here are 4 ideas to consider:
1. My Biases Might Affect My Response
Many of us established moral and ideological opinion on members of the LGBTQ+ community as sexually deviant or socially inferior. Many of us grew up in communities that used LGBTQ+ terms as slurs or names to belittle others. As children come out, it is very common to hear those old arguments hum their tune; this time, however, it’s about your own child.
If your child has come out, it’s the perfect time to hit the pause button on the rolling moral or social dialogue that you might have inherited from childhood. Take time to listen and learn from LGBTQ+ people. Your understanding might shift dramatically and take on new beliefs as an adult, giving you a new perspective that allows you to love who your child is, rather than who they were ‘supposed to become.’
2. It’s Not My Fault
Many parents, especially those in close proximity to religious influences, have internalized the belief that parents cause impressionable children to become gay, lesbian, or trans. The ‘distant father and overbearing mother’ Freudian narrative we’ve been fed for years still seems like a convincing narrative.
I find that many parents who believe in the old theories of homosexuality and gender identity are easily angered by their children’s coming out because they blame themselves. In one way or another, they believe the notion that if they can convince their children to change their minds, they will inevitably protect their own reputation as loving parents. And when they cannot convince their children to change, even by using shame or explosive anger, powerlessness settles in and relational fractures splice the family into pieces.
Thankfully, research now proves that parenting and socialization have no effect on a child’s gender identity and sexual orientation (which is very different than both sexual identity and sexual activity).
When parents can recognize that their children’s sexual orientations and gender identities are neither determined by culture, family, nor parenting styles they are more easily able to hear about the child’s internal reality and make peace with what it means for them. These parents move from a sense of guilt or shame toward acceptance of themselves and their children, making familial attachments and cohesion more possible.
3. Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Are Established Before Birth
Peer reviewed research (when multiple research teams perform the same experiment and find similar statistical results) has proven that sexual orientation and gender identity are predetermined before birth, based not on genetic determinants, but by a hormonal bathing that washes the fetus during weeks 6 and 12.
This powerful discovery by research now gives us the ability to understand that sexual orientation and gender identity are not a choice or a matter of persuasive peer pressure to which a child has succumbed.
Parents who can understand that their children were born with the seeds of sexuality and gender planted into the soil of their neurology––seeds that would eventually blossom as normal and organic maturation occurs––are able to make peace with the fact that sexual orientation and gender identity are outside of their or their children’s control.
In this light, I always encourage parents to take the bold and very challenging step of asking about their children’s stories: how they first felt their gender identity, how they experience their sexual orientation or gender identity, how your child might have tried to deny her/his/their internal knowing, and how it has very little to do with peer pressure or parenting, could be very illumination, as well as relieving. This takes parents out of the realm of fear and speculation, and into their children’s lives.
4. Grieve Your Dreams, Not Your Child
Almost every parent I’ve worked with has brought an incredible amount of grief into my office. Struck with pain and panic, these parents spend many hours trying to reconcile who their children are becoming versus who they thought they’d be.
One important realization that helps these parents is recognizing the distinction between grieving their children and grieving the hopes they had for their children. Although grieving hopes and dreams is entirely legitimate, focusing on hopes and dreams allows grieving parents to open up to the reality of seeing, maybe for the first time, their children’s full-hearted authenticity. Grieving the death of the hopes and dreams gives way for a renewed sense of life, the life of who the child is and where they are going.
Working with hundreds of parents over the years, I have come to see common concerns and patterns that, when deconstructed, can make a massive difference, not only for parents and the family, but for the child’s ongoing mental health. Every parent has what it takes to love and protect their coming out child. We encourage you to confront your fears with courage, challenge your anger with compassion, and create the connections that leaves you and your family standing in confidence.