Supporting LGBTQ Teens Coming Out: It’s a Family Process

Three at the jettyAs a therapist who specializes in working with LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) teens and their families during the coming-out process, I am often witness to the reactions parents have to a teen revealing his or her sexual identity. These reactions range from “We suspected for quite a while” to “We had no idea!”

As I work with these families, the expectation is that therapy needs to focus on the issues surrounding the teen coming out. While this support for the LGBTQ teen is vital, in my experience, parents may need just as much support. Parents are often in territory that is new to them and they may not have developed the language to speak effectively and sensitively with their teen, or the awareness to sort through their own changing perspectives.

One of the most basic things that I have parents focus on is that the child they have lived with and known for years is still the same person. One of the most supportive things any parent can offer at the moment of coming out is simply a hug and reassurance that there is still a relationship based on love. Remember that when a teen comes out to his or her family, he or she has probably been thinking about and building anxiety around how that coming-out experience will play out and be received. Simply connecting with the teen will help to relieve some of the anxiety and reassure the teen that there is still space for him or her in the family story.

It is also important at the beginning to simply listen and support. Even with parents who suspect that a teen may be gay, it is important that they take time to process some of their own feelings before opening up a litany of questions and concerns. When parents are caught completely off guard when a teen comes out, it is vital to offer loving support to the teen and at the same time recognize that there are questions and concerns that there may not be answers to immediately. Parents may need time to adjust to this new information and to process it.

As parents begin the process of unraveling their feelings about their teen’s sexual orientation, it is also a good time to gather information and learn more about what it means to be a member of the LGBTQ community beyond stereotypes and popular conceptions. Parents can join organizations such as PFLAG and gather the latest info regarding LGBTQ teens on the GLSEN website. As parents become more educated, they can release some of their fears and build a foundation for conversation with their teen.

As the process continues, another question that may arise is, “Who gets to know?” The coming-out process is just that, a process, and how the information is disseminated is worth discussing. Often, a teen will come out to one parent first and then ask for that information to be held in confidence for a time. There is no need to force the conversation, and it can help the process a lot if the teen feels like he or she is in charge of who gets to know. It is also common for a sibling, friend, relative, or teacher to know first, so I encourage parents to be OK with the fact they may not be the first to know.

Finally, don’t forget that while it should be a priority to be open and available to converse with your teen about his or her sexual identity, it is not all that he/she is. He or she is still facing all of the same battles and angst that other teens go through as they develop their identity. Be sure to support LGBTQ teens in all their efforts in life, including school, hobbies, sports, friendships, and spirituality. Though it may seem like the coming-out story is the most important thing on the list at the moment, teens are complex, vital, intriguing, and amazing people who are open to guidance, acceptance, and love in all forms and areas.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by John Sovec, LMFT, therapist in Pasadena, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • mack

    mack

    February 12th, 2015 at 9:06 AM

    This is definitely not one of those issues that you want someone to have to try to navigate alone. Kids when they are this age and they desperately want people to love and understand them, this is when they need to most support and not criticism and hatred. And it does have to be a family thing, something that the whole family contributes to working on and understanding.

  • Emerson

    Emerson

    February 12th, 2015 at 10:44 AM

    This may be what is ideal, but I in no way think that this is the reality of teens coming out in most households. For most parents this is going to come as a shock, something that they would have never imagined for their child and quite frankly not something that they would support in their child unless they love them so much that they can’t imagine not having them as a part of their lives. What I am saying is that this is going to have to be a time to learn for everyone and even though most parents will eventually come around, you have to understand that for most of them this news is not going to be something which at first they will likely celebrate. They know how hard life will be for their child and they will want to what they can to ease that pain that can come with these revelations.

  • mark

    mark

    February 12th, 2015 at 3:56 PM

    What do the families do who truly believe that this is a sin to pursue this? Even if you love your child you could still have thoughts like that, so what do you do then?

  • Randall

    Randall

    February 13th, 2015 at 11:05 AM

    There is so much fear coming from both sides in situations like this. The child is probably afraid that his or her parents will turn their back on them once they come out, and I think that for the parents it is all about a fear of the unknown, what will life now be like for this child as an individual who is expressing their true thoughts and feelings. I wish that I could say that it would be easy but things like this never are, but they do have the ability to help you get closer to those loved ones in your life if you do not let it first drive you apart.

  • Polly

    Polly

    February 13th, 2015 at 2:00 PM

    I know that this is something that my son is struggling with right now and he doesn’t think that I know but I do. I have gone back and forth about whether I should approach him with what I think but I also kind of feel like I should wait for him to come to me. Any thoughts or advice, because I could sure use it right now!

  • raven

    raven

    February 14th, 2015 at 9:10 AM

    This is not my real name because I am too afraid still to admit that I am bisexual and coming out to my parents feels like it would be the scariest thing in the world to me.

    I have all of these fears like thinking that they won’t love me anymore, and I know that it almost feels unreasonable but then again they are so straight laced and conservative that even the thought of them understanding any of this is hard to warp my mind around.

  • Willis.B.

    Willis.B.

    February 14th, 2015 at 2:36 PM

    How could I leave my child behind even if I do not agree with the choices that he makes in his life? How am I just supposed to forget that this is my child and I love him all because I may not want the same things from life that he wants? That is not a choice nor a decision for me to make, it is my job as a parent to support him

  • selma

    selma

    February 16th, 2015 at 5:17 AM

    This could be a a huge learning experience for everyone involved… time to make the most of that and get to know more about yourself and your child all at the same time.
    Going through this very emotional journey together could help to make both of you closer to one another than you ever thought could be possible.

  • Grady

    Grady

    February 16th, 2015 at 9:14 AM

    I am not too sure how I would react to news like this, and I know that I could have never come out to my own parents if I was gay because they would have never wanted to have anything to do with me. Sad but true. That was just their generation I guess. I hope that I am a little more open to the possibilities than they would have been, but still, this has to be hard news to hear when you aren’t expecting it.

  • carolee

    carolee

    February 17th, 2015 at 6:38 AM

    In these instances where the families are having a difficult time with the decision, do you think that this would be an appropriate time for the family to start therapy together.

  • John Sovec

    John Sovec

    February 19th, 2015 at 1:27 PM

    Thank you all for your insightful questions and comments on this article.
    I would suggest that the most important point of this article is that parents are going to have their own feelings about their teen coming out and it is vital to address those feelings in a safe and protected environment so that you can be there for your child.
    Some thoughts:
    Polly – Create a safe, loving and supportive environment and let your son come to you when he is ready.
    raven – I would suggest you reach out to The Trevor Project to find resources and a safe place to talk about your feelings
    Carolee – family therapy is a wonderful support as long as the therapist is trained in working with teens and the coming our process

  • Josie

    Josie

    February 19th, 2015 at 4:08 PM

    I look back on so many things and realize that we all knew that my sister was a lesbian even before I think that she knew it, at least way before she actually came out to the family! I know that we could have all been a lot more supportive of her them and it breaks my heart to think of how much so many family members shut her out when they found out. I lost time with her that I will never get back and I do regret that although we have become so much closer now that she knows that there is nothing that she feels like she has to hide anymore. It was something that we all learned form and something that I think and hope ultimately brought all of us closer together in the end.

  • Stella

    Stella

    February 21st, 2015 at 9:33 AM

    When our son came out almost 20 years ago, I thought that his father would die. But in the end I think that it has actually brought them closer together because it doesn’t feel like there are those walls up between them now that once were.

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