What Do I Do If My Child is Gay?
First there was denial: “He’s just experimenting – trying on different identities.”
Then guilt: “If only I hadn’t let him play with his sister’s Barbie dolls in the bird bath to make ‘Hot Tub Barbie.’ What was I thinking?”
Shame: “People will judge me as a parent if this secret gets out. They’ll think our son is gay because he has an overbearing mother and a weak father.”
And then fear: “What if my son gets AIDS? What if he’s bullied? What if he get fired from a job because of prejudice?”
Then there was a deep sense of loss. I was mourning the loss of an expected lifestyle that included a bride and children.
These are all normal feelings but they are also overwhelming. One minute I thought I was dealing with everyday parenting issues when suddenly I found myself lacking appropriate skills. If you don’t meet your feelings head-on, they can, and will, disrupt your ability to parent. So how do I parent my gay teen?
It’s important to keep in mind that your child has probably already dealt with the feelings you just went through as he/she struggled to come to terms with his/her sexual orientation – and may have done so in a haze of confusion and loneliness.
Raising a gay child is not the same as raising a straight child. While parenting any teen is difficult, parents of GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) teens have additional hurdles that run the gamut from overcoming your own prejudices and expectations to reaching a place of acceptance. First and foremost, the GLBT teen needs unconditional parental love.
And secondly, it is usually a good idea to seek professional help to guide you through the process of understanding both what you and your child are going through.
Dr. Jonathan Tobkes, M.D., a psychiatrist who sees many GLBT teens in his New York City practice, suggests the following:
1. Seek individual or family therapy. Individual therapy may help you understand your own feelings and family therapy will help open a dialogue within the family.
2. Talk with a family member, or trusted friend, who has “been there” and can offer advice and support based on experience.
3. Find a support group like PFLAG (Parents of Lesbians and Gays). A support group will help you feel part of a community. You don’t have to figure all this out on your own.
4. Read as much literature as you can with the focus on dispelling stereotypes of the GLBT individual.
Dr. Tobkes adds that parents are wrong in the belief that they “caused their child’s sexuality.” Says Tobkes, “whether or not you threw out your daughter’s Barbie dolls so your son couldn’t play with them, has nothing to do with your child’s sexual orientation.”
Tobkes also suggests that parents not jump to conclusions about their child’s sexual orientation too early on. There’s no reason for parents to assume that, when a child demonstrates cross-gender behaviors like girls playing with trucks and boys playing with dolls, they are experiencing any type of gender confusion. There are many children, who identify later in life as heterosexual, who play with toys that are typically of interest to the opposite sex. There’s no reason to conclude that this represents anything other than everyday imaginative play.
“Parents should only be concerned about gender confusion if their child consistently wants to be the opposite sex and/or mentions feelings of being ‘trapped in the wrong body.’ That’s when it is time to consult a child psychiatrist.”
Remember that your child is still the same person he/she was the day before he/she trusted you enough to confide in you. It is your job now to open your mind and heart and offer yourself as a consistent safe-haven in an otherwise largely intolerant world.
Wesley Davidson is an award-winning writer. She has written articles on health and childcare for such publications as Good Housekeeping, Adoptive Families, American Baby, and Modern Bride. In her blog “Straight Parent Gay Kid”, Ms. Davidson offers support to straight parents who struggle with issues involved with raising gay kids.
Dr. Jonathan Tobkes holds a faculty appointment at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center where he teaches and supervises physicians in training. He practices psychiatric medicine in New York City specializing in childhood anxiety and attention disorders. Visit his website: jonathantobkesmd.com.
Ms. Davidson and Dr. Tobkes are collaborating on an advice book for straight parents of gay and lesbian teens.