How parents of LGBTQ+ people can find support when their child comes out
When your child comes out as LGBTQIA, it can be an emotional experience as a parent, whether you expected the news or not. While you (hopefully) want your child to feel loved and supported regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, the news may feel bittersweet or difficult to process.
It’s normal to feel a mix of emotions, experts say. It’s unhelpful to put this burden onto your child, but it’s not healthy to ignore it, either. There are plentiful resources out there to support and guide you through this process while also supporting your child. Consider these tips on how to be kind to yourself during this emotional time, from experts and parents who have been there.
Be prepared for mixed emotions
When your child comes out to you, it’s completely normal for you to feel a full spectrum of emotions, so there’s no need to feel guilty. “Parents have a preconceived notion of what their child’s life will look like,” says Briona Jenkins, a queer activist in Austin, Texas. She holds a degree in social work and has served in the nonprofit world for over eight years, most recently for Out Youth, an Austin organization supporting LGBTQIA youth.
In Jenkins’s countless interactions with families navigating this process, she found most parents don’t realize they’re allowed to mourn that former idea of their child’s life and future. But it’s also important to remember their kid is still here, Jenkins says. “You’re allowed to hold those two feelings: ‘I’m excited that my kid is able to show up as their full self,’ but ‘I’m also able to be sad at no longer having what I thought would be a safer life for them,’” she explains.
Aruna Rao, a New Jersey mom and South Asian immigrant, went through this when her child came out as queer in high school and then as trans in college. Rao is now an advocate who helps other parents by serving on the National Board of Directors of PFLAG, a nonprofit providing peer support to LGBTQ+ people and their family, friends and allies.
Rao often encounters parents facing this emotional struggle. “On the one hand, most are trying to lead with love and react in a positive and affirming way,” Rao says. “But for immigrant parents like me, there aren’t a lot of out-and-proud brown people of color who are LGBTQ role models. We don’t have those resources of how to react, so there can be fear involved and fear about a child’s safety and well-being.”
Be aware that “your child coming out to you is an act of deep trust,” says Rao, “so it’s really important to let them know you love them just as they are.” If you feel shocked or need time to process it, Rao encourages being honest with your child — just make sure to also reassure them that you’re happy for them, love them just as they are and want to support them on this journey. Additionally, she encourages staying mindful of the parent/child relationship and avoiding putting your anxiety and grief on them. That type of support is best found elsewhere (more on that below).
Seek out educational resources
Whether you already considered yourself an LGBTQ+ ally or are completely new to this world, it’s helpful to seek out resources to learn more about your child’s new identity and community. This wasn’t always the case, but there’s now myriad information out there for parents.
Consider how you best process information, Jenkins says, whether that’s reading, watching, or listening. There are books, podcasts, blogs, Instagram accounts, YouTube videos, documentaries and other LGBTQ+ resources for free online. If you prefer reading, Rao says PFLAG’s website is full of LGBTQ+ resources, such as recommended book lists and a guide for parents with children coming out.
Counseling is hugely beneficial for youth going through the coming out process, says Nadia Speziale, a licensed professional counselor with Bright Horizons Counseling Services, LLC, in Stafford, Virginia.
She always recommends parents be involved in the therapy process, whether sitting in on some sessions or simply maintaining communication with the counselor. “I often say that not only is this a journey for the person coming out but also a journey for everyone around them,” Speziale says. “We want to decrease the length and stress of his journey ultimately, so having everyone involved can really ease those bumps in the road and help provide a place for all confusion, questions and all other thoughts get addressed and answered.”
It’s also helpful for parents to have their own counselor, Speziale says, especially since their future plans for the child might look different now. “This can be a huge adjustment for most parents,and seeking their own support can be helpful in communicating their own feelings,” she says.
When Rao’s child came out as trans, he benefited from therapy. Rao and her spouse also attended some sessions with him, and having that safe environment to communicate as a family was a huge help for them all.
Rao encourages families to find affirming therapists who are either in the LGBTQ+ community or work closely with those in it. She adds that it’s also important, especially for minorities, to find a therapist who is affirming of all your intersecting identities. “I want to be affirmed as a mom, brown woman and immigrant,” Rao says. “Some therapists understand one aspect but not all of them.” She suggests looking to networks where you can find like-minded therapists, such as the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network.
Join a parent support group
While there are peer support groups nationwide for LGBTQ+ youth, there are also plenty for parents who need some solidarity.
Elizabeth Lopez Castro is a teacher and Marine Corps spouse currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan, with her husband and two sons. When her older son, Enrique, came out as gay around age 13, he had already researched and found Fiesta Youth, a San Antonio nonprofit with peer support groups for LGBTQ youth. His parents encouraged it, and by attending and finding like-minded, supportive friends, Enrique found a sense of belonging.
Castro learned there were also monthly meetings for parents at the same time as the youth group, so she and her husband began attending. They were nervous at first, but they quickly learned so much and realized how much they still had to learn.
Castro’s husband Sam says his first meeting was eye-opening. “The adult sessions that took place concurrently allowed the parents to interact, ask questions and share experiences with each other that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise,” he says. He remembers the father of a trans man who was processing the feeling that he’d lost his little girl. “It gave us a safe space outside of our kids to cope with this, since those safe spaces don’t exist in the wild too often,” he says.
When Rao’s child came out as queer, and later as trans, she also felt drawn to seek out parents with similar experiences. She turned to PFLAG, which has over 400 chapters nationwide (and new online support options due to the pandemic). This helped her connect with fellow parents who could relate and offer guidance. “The reason peer support is important is you are able to be very honest about what you’re feeling as you process your emotions,” Rao says. “You’re able to learn from the journeys of others. Lots of families have walked this walk; you’re not alone.” It worked so well for her that she’s now a part of the national organization.
Find a supportive role model
While Castro and her husband wanted to support their son, they knew they needed help to get it right. They were friends with a gay adult male couple from a previous duty station, and when Enrique came out, Castro and her husband turned to them for guidance. “We didn’t know what we were doing, so they were the first people we reached out to,” Castro recalls. “I asked them, ‘What do we do? What do we not do? What can we do as parents to best support our son?’”
While Castro says they’ve come a long way in learning how to be their son’s biggest champions, she, her husband and even their son still turn to the couple for advice on occasion. “They’ve been so supportive; they’ve been role models and a support system,” she says. If you don’t have anyone in your immediate circle you can turn to, see if anyone in an LGBTQ+ youth or adult peer support group can fill this role or recommend a mentor.
If you’re supportive of your LGBTQ+ child, kudos — showing your child unconditional love and a willingness to learn will help you, your child and your relationship with them immensely. Just remember that it’s a process, and it’s completely normal to have some hard times and need outside support. That’s why these resources exist.
When asked what she would say to other parents of LGBTQ+ kids who recently came out, Castro shares these words of wisdom: “Be willing to listen and learn, but give yourself some grace and patience knowing you won’t understand all of it from just one parent support meeting. It isn’t going to happen overnight.”
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