Here’s how to support your LGBTQIA+ child or teen
We know that navigating how to best support your LGBTQIA+ child or teen can be pretty overwhelming. You may be worried about their safety, what other family members will say, and you may even be grieving the identity of who you thought they would be. Maybe you’re scared to say the wrong thing or are feeling really alone in parenting right now. All of this is normal and completely okay.
When a child is coming out or exploring their identity, the most important thing for them to know is that their family supports and loves them. And we’re here to assure you that showing up for your child doesn’t require any special knowledge or training — it simply starts with a willingness to listen to what they’re going through. By letting your child know that you’re there for them, even when things are confusing or hard, you’re creating an essential environment of trust and safety where they can continue to explore who they really are.
For sexual and gender minority kids, having support from trusted adults in life can be lifesaving. According to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth who felt supported by their family reported attempting suicide at less than half the rate of those who little to no social support.
We know that’s a tough stat to read, but the great news is that with your support, your LGBTQIA+ child or teen can have a bright future where they feel free to live as their most authentic selves. Here are our top tips for how to best show up for them, while also making sure that you’re taking care of yourself too.
Understanding your child’s identity
Physical, mental, and emotional changes are all normal parts of growing up. Remember all of the questionable hairstyles and fashion choices you cycled through? As we grow and learn more about the world, our likes, dislikes, interests, and the people, places, and things with which we identify continue to shift and change.
Once kids hit puberty, it's a prime time to explore identities, which is perhaps some of the tension you’ve felt at home. But what in the world is identity? It’s a set of unique characteristics that can be used to identify a person. We often use this word in lots of different ways and in many different contexts, but at its most basic level, it refers to a person’s sense of self and how they view themself compared to others.
Identity includes categories like race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and economic status are often used to describe other people. For instance, someone may identify as Asian, or Muslim, or female.
But other identity categories exist as well. your child may identify themselves as a goth, or a Virgo, or a violin player, or bilingual, or in a relationship. And the words they use to describe themselves will likely change over time. As kids and teens try to figure out where and how they fit into social groups like family, peers, and society as a whole, it’s incredibly normal if they’re struggling to find the words to describe their identity.
So, speaking of identities, what does LGBTQIA+ mean? Let’s break down this acronym:
- L is for Lesbian. This means a woman who is emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to other women.
- G is for Gay. This is used to describe men who are emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to other men, but it can also mean anyone who is attracted to the same gender.
- B is for Bisexual. This is used for people who are attracted to more than one gender.
- T is for Transgender. Being transgender does not imply a specific sexual orientation! Instead, it’s used to describe those whose gender identity or expression differs from cultural expectations. Non-binary falls under the transgender umbrella––some non-binary people identify as trans, while others don’t.
- Q is for Queer. This is used as a catch-all term that includes anyone who does not identify as exclusively heterosexual. It can also be used for people who have non-binary or gender-fluid identities. While the word queer was once used as a derogatory slur, it has been reclaimed by some in the community. Q can also stand for “questioning,” as in folks who are questioning their identity.
- I is for Intersex. This term refers to people born with differences in their sex traits and reproductive anatomy.
- A is for Asexual. This term is for people who lack sexual attraction to others.
- The + symbol is meant for everyone else––it deliberately leaves space for other sexual identities and orientations not covered by L, G, B, T, Q, I, or A.
One thing to keep in mind is that sexual orientation and gender identity can be fluid. So if your child is going back and forth between believing they might be gay or bisexual, for instance, that’s completely normal.
Try to not take it personally if your child has come out to their friends before disclosing the information to you. The Trevor Project’s LGBTQ Youth Mental Health Study found that most respondents disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity to friends first, then trusted adults, who may not always be their parents.
It’s not easy for anyone to explore their gender identity and sexual orientation, especially when you consider the statistics. According to a national survey, one in three young LGBTQIA+ people reported they’d been physically threatened or harmed in their lifetime because of their LGBTQIA+ identity. Additionally, 68 percent and over three in four transgender and nonbinary youths reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder within the past two weeks.
It can be super frightening for a child to begin to explore their identity. Offering them a safe, affirming, compassionate, and supportive space will help them build resilience, improve self-esteem, and let them know that you will always be there when things get tough.
How to best support your child
Showing up for your LGBTQIA+ child or teen in a supportive, open-minded way can have a huge impact on their mental health. But where do you begin?! Here are our top ways you can be there for them when they need you the most.
Listen and encourage open, honest conversations. Show up for your child by listening respectfully to what they have to say without interrupting, shaming, or judging them. Validate their experience and emotions rather than downplaying what they are going through or offering immediate solutions. Try one of these lines to let them know that you have their back, no matter what:
- “I love you for exactly who you are and I am here for you.”
- “I’m still learning, but I’m going to do everything I can to take care of you and advocate for you.”
- “I hear that you are feeling ____. I’m so glad that you shared this with me.”
- “It is my job to make sure that you feel safe and supported, so know that you can always come to me.”
- “Whatever decisions you make, I’m right here and will support the ones that feel best for you.”
- “What would make you feel the most supported right now?”
Make your home a safe haven. Get on the same page as a family that your home is a place where everyone can feel safe and accepted for who they are. You can help your child feel more comfortable exploring their identity by letting them know that you have an open mind and by discussing society’s gender stereotypes. Encourage them to express themselves in whatever fashions they choose and use language that is inclusive and encouraging.
Be their biggest advocate. Coming out for a child or teen can be a huge relief, but it can also be painful as they navigate how to best express themselves in the world. Let your child take the lead when it comes to sharing their sexuality or gender identity with other family members, but let them know that you’ll be there to support them throughout the process. If they’re having a hard time at school, get to know the policies and consider what support systems need to be put into place to keep them safe and protected. You can also be an advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights in your community by working with local organizations and showing pride for your child’s identity.
Respect and reaffirm their chosen identity. It’s okay if you are struggling to understand your child’s identity, clothing choices, chosen name, or pronouns. But it’s important to show support by using and respecting their chosen name and pronouns, regardless of the complicated emotions you may be experiencing. Be prepared that your child may change labels more than once as they begin to explore their identity. Try to remember that wherever they are in their journey, it’s essential to show up and support them exactly as they are in the moment.
Keep on learning. Continue to educate yourself by tapping into resources on allyship from the Trevor Project and Family Equity (PFLAG has a great glossary of terms!). You will inevitably make mistakes along the way, but keep showing up, owning your errors, and learning all you can to help your child feel seen and loved.
Make space for your emotions. It’s completely understandable for you to be experiencing a range of emotions that may include grief, fear, and confusion. You may be afraid of discrimination, losing community, the judgment of those around you, or of simply not knowing what to say. Whatever is coming up for you is valid and it’s important to make time and space to process it all so that it doesn’t put pressure or blame on your child. You can find support by talking to other LGBTQIA+ caregivers via support groups, journaling, reaching out to a trusted friend, or talking to a mental health professional.
We know this is A LOT of information, so remember that Bend is here for you and your family to offer support, tools, and resources. Just by taking the time to read this article, you’re showing up in a BIG WAY for your child. Continue to offer them love and support, while asking for help if you need it along the way.