One of the tasks of growing up is discovering who you are and what that means about who you like and what you find attractive. Every person goes through this process of exploration, but what happens when it leads to feeling different, confused, or alone? For Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) youth, this normal developmental process can sometimes lead to feeling the need to hide parts of themselves from the people they care about most.
Unfortunately, both keeping a secret about gender identity or sexual orientation and sharing that secret can have risks. As such, because of exposure to bias and discrimination, the LGBT population consistently represents an underserved community of young people who are vulnerable to unique and tragic mental health consequences. The good news is that having a loving, supportive family who can help a child accept him or herself is protective against many potentially disastrous outcomes including homelessness, suicide, substance use, and depression. So how do you recognize when your child is starting to question his or her gender identity or sexual orientation? How can you best help? And how do you begin to talk about such difficult issues?
Keep an open mind, be curious and engage your child
Up to 10 percent of the population will identify as LGBT, and many more than those 10 percent will question their identity at some point during childhood or adolescence. Don’t make assumptions about your child’s gender identity or sexual orientation based on their interests or activities! Show interest, ask questions, and always be supportive.
These are often difficult topics to broach, and speaking frankly with your child about sex and sexuality does not come naturally to most people. Your child will pick up on and respond to your level of comfort with the topic. Take the opportunity to practice – with your spouse or your partner, your own parents, with a friend who may be preparing for the same conversation with his or her kids, or even by yourself in front of a mirror. Most teens get information about sex from other teens and the media. This is a prime opportunity to provide accurate information about sex and development and build a level of trust with your child.
Media is changing and there are more and more positive and highly visible LGBT role models. This is great for LGBT youth, but it does not substitute for real people in a child’s day-to-day life. Identify role models in your community, and if you don’t know of any, ask! Organizations such as PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) can help you connect with other parents and families.
Get Involved and Stay Involved
Despite increases in tolerance, discrimination and prejudice persist. Find out about your school district’s policies on LGBT youth and bullying. Let your child know that you are there to help if he or she ever begins to feel unsafe at school.
Try, and Try Again
Many kids assume their parents will have a terrible reaction to questions around sexual and gender identity, and those thoughts can lead to negative beliefs about themselves and their future. The only way to challenge these assumptions is head on. If you are loving and supportive, and if you show that you have an open mind by asking the right questions, you will demonstrate a level of comfort with gender and sexuality that will help your children know they can come to you when they are ready.