Raising kids is tough work, in general. But if your child identifies in the LGBTQ+ community, it can bring some additional challenges. When your child comes out to you, it can take some time to process the news. Depending on your family, telling them can be a stressful ordeal, and if any relatives are unsupportive, the thought of future family gatherings might be terrifying.
“I do see a lot of parents who have come to terms with their child’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity but worry about how other family members will react to this,” says April Owen, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Austin, Texas, who specializes in working with LGBTQ+ kids.
She says most parents worry about the older generations, like grandparents. But sometimes these relatives surprise you and are the most supportive, she says.
If they’re not on board at first, Owen says some family members eventually come around.
“If they truly love and care for the youth and are open to learning and understanding, sometimes they can change what was once a more negative stance towards LGBTQ people,” she says. “I’ve seen cases where very conservative and seemingly closed-minded family members have surprised people with their ability to learn and be accepting.”
If you have concerns about intolerant family members, here’s how to navigate it and support your LGBTQ+ child — and yourself — at family gatherings and beyond.
1. Decide how to share the news together
If a gathering is approaching and your family doesn’t yet know about your child’s identity, Owen believes there should be a collaborative conversation between the parent(s) and LGBTQ+ kid.
“The child should always be in the driver’s seat regarding the coming out process,” Owen says. “If there are family members who may not be supportive, parents and children can decide together whether to come out to them at all, whether to talk to them together, or whether the parent(s) should talk to them alone, at least at first.”
Owen says some families may decide that older and/or seemingly unsupportive family members don’t need to know, especially if they’re nearing the end of their life or live far away. However, this is easier to do with sexual orientation, she says; if the child’s gender identity is changing, it can be harder to keep under wraps.
“These changes become observable and family members they spend time with might notice and question or comment on the changes,” Owen says. “You wouldn’t want family members to do this in a way that is hurtful to your child, so with gender-diverse youth there is often a need to be more upfront.”
Danielle Johnson, a mother of an 8-year-old transgender daughter in Omaha, Nebraska, says she’s found it important to always check with her daughter first before sharing the news with any family member.
“Before telling any family, I think it’s best to hear their thoughts and concerns and make sure they’re comfortable,” she says.
2. Emphasize your support
Before going into any situation with a potentially unsupportive family member, Owen says it’s key for the parents to remind their child that they’re fully supportive of them, and that if any family members are adversarial or difficult, the parents will do their best to protect their child from negativity.
“A ‘we support you no matter what,’ and ‘we will deal with any family members who don’t’ kind of stance is very helpful,” Owen says.
3. Be candid with your child
Depending on your kid, it could be helpful to let them know beforehand that it’s possible not everyone in the family will be fully supportive. Despite her daughter Rylee’s young age, Johnson has made an effort to be honest with her and prepare her for how people may react.
When Rylee was going to see out-of-town cousins for the first time in a while, she asked her mom, “What if they don’t like me anymore? What if they call me by my birth name?” Johnson responded by letting her know that she needs to understand that it’s a transition for the whole family and might take some getting used to for some people, and they might have questions or concerns at first.
Sara Westermark, a mom in Wilmington, North Carolina, whose 18-year-old identifies as nonbinary and bisexual, has employed the same strategy. She’s honest with her child, Alex, that not everyone understands what it means to be nonbinary, especially because she wasn’t familiar with it when Alex first came out.
“I’ve tried to prepare Alex with the idea that they can’t be offended because people don’t understand it, but they can be an advocate or an ambassador for what it is to be a nonbinary child,” she says.
4. Have a safety plan before the gathering
If you’re going into a family gathering with potentially difficult family members, consider making a plan in advance, says Chad Reumann, who lives in San Antonio, Texas, and serves as the Regional Director of PFLAG for the Southern Region. PFLAG is a national nonprofit that supports LGBTQ+ people, their families and allies, and their local chapters offer peer support meetings.
Reumann says parents at PFLAG meetings often advise others in this situation to create a specific plan for the child in case things go awry. For example, “If your kid ever feels threatened, there will be a safe word they’ll tell you,” he says. He adds that parents have also found that it helps to create a designated retreat zone, such as in the car, or somewhere outside the house on a patio, where the child can get away and find a safe space if they feel uncomfortable.
5. Be confident and comfortable
Consider how your attitude with family can lead the way for others.
“Everybody else will look to the parent for the parameters on how to treat their child,” says Janet Burrage Grigsby, a mom in San Antonio, Texas, who has a gay son and is very involved in PFLAG. “If the parent gives off any kind of unsupportive vibe around their child, it gives free rein to others to allow those kinds of negative behaviors to come out.”
She says if parents can set appropriate parameters by being at complete ease and comfort with the fact that their child happens to be gay or another identity, it shows the other people that they can treat the child just like they’d treat any other children.
“You don’t hide behind it, you don’t make any excuses for it, you don’t stay silent,” says Burrage Grigsby. “You just roll into it as easily as you would any issue.”
6. Provide education
If a family member is unsupportive about your child’s identity, it can be helpful to give some accurate information on what it means to be LGBTQ+, Owen says.
“Sometimes there is just a level of ignorance that needs to be corrected,” she says. “Suggesting they watch a documentary to learn more about what they and their child are going through, such as ‘Gender Revolution: A Journey With Katie Couric,’ could be helpful.”
She also recommends broadening their understanding by providing reading materials from organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, the Trans Youth Equality Foundation or PFLAG.
Johnson adds that sharing your experience can also be a form of education. When some family members expressed concerns about her daughter’s transition being just a phase, Johnson and her family took the time to explain how long Rylee had been expressing her gender identity and the experiences that led them to take her seriously. They explained that it was a process, not something that was decided overnight, and that they would love the family’s support.
“We tell them it’s still the same child; they’re just living as who they truly are,” she says.
7. Confront inappropriate behavior
Before a family gathering, consider how you might shut down an inappropriate comment or joke to protect your child. Owen says parents might need to be frank and vulnerable, possibly saying something like, “We really need your understanding and support on this.”
When Westermark’s child came out as nonbinary, her ex-husband wasn’t on board initially and made jokes that hurt Alex’s feelings.
“A lot of people don’t realize they’re hurtful; they’re trying to also understand and come to terms with it, so they’re trying to use humor to deal,” she says.
Westermark intervened, and she found it was helpful to do it in the most loving way possible.
“Instead of being more punitive, which can have a negative effect, I said, ‘You know, this is hard for your kid, too,’” she says. “‘It makes them feel like you’re not on their side and they feel alienated. So if you want to have a better connection with your kid, you have to be be supportive even if you don’t understand and even if it’s not your reality.’”
She emphasized to her ex that he couldn’t continue to make these inappropriate jokes and made it clear that if he didn’t embrace Alex, she feared he would no longer have his child in his life. The jokes stopped.
8. Create healthy boundaries
If some adult family members refuse to learn or express disapproval of the child’s identity, Owen says parents can consider drawing a hard line.
“They might need to say that the only way they will allow that child to be around them is if they will use the correct name and pronouns, for example, and show support and zero hostility,” she says.
This could mean sitting out family gatherings.
Johnson says her family intuitively knew that if they didn’t support her child, they wouldn’t be around anymore.
“If your family doesn’t know that about you, it’s important to say it specifically,” she says. “For someone who’s transitioning, you can say, ‘Our child is now going by this name and we’re using these pronouns. I hope you’re OK with that because if you’re not, I’m sorry, but you can’t come around, or we’ll have to distance ourselves.”
For the most part, Burrage Grigsby’s family members have supported her gay son, and some conservative family members surprised her with their acceptance. She says her family knew her well enough to know that if they treated her child disrespectfully, she would have no problem severing ties with them. However, she did have to create some boundaries with a relative she’s not close with.
“My cousin and I had a tiff on Facebook; she was being disrespectful of gay people on my page,” Burrage Grigsby says. “You know who I am and who my child is, and you’re actually going to do this here? I unfriended her.”
9. Nurture relationships with supportive family members
Dealing with unsupportive family members can be disheartening, but if there are some who are supportive, lean on them.
“Parents often need support, too, and it is incredibly helpful when they do find family members who are understanding and are there for them to talk about their own experience of navigating their child’s gender identity or sexual orientation,” Owen says. “I’ve sometimes seen a parent ‘lose’ a relationship with an unsupportive family member, but also in the process get much closer to a family member who is a source of support for them and their child.”
10. Get advice from fellow parents
If you’re feeling nervous going into a family gathering, or you’re not sure how to handle whatever may come up, consider finding a support network, such as PFLAG. Reumann says parents of newly out youth often come to PFLAG meetings due to concerns about how family will react and to seek support and advice from experienced parents.
PFLAG has about 400 chapters across the country, he says, and most have a few tenured parents who can help guide the newer ones. PFLAG is a peer support group, Reumann emphasizes, so it’s not considered professional counseling and the organization doesn’t give official advice.
“But everyone provides a point of perspective, and the more tenured parents and community members can talk about what they went through and what they did and give examples and recommendations based on their experiences,” Reumann says.
If you have family members who are struggling to understand your child’s identity or how to be supportive, you could even ask them to join you at a meeting.
Dealing with unsupportive family members can be tough and emotional, both for you and your LGBTQ+ child. But kudos for being a champion for your child, and know there are many strategies and resources to help your child thrive and feel embraced as their authentic selves.