There is an alarming statistic in America that shows the attempted suicide rate and suicide ideation among LGBTQ youth is significantly higher than that of the general population of the same age. While it is difficult to pull exact numbers because of the oftentimes secrecy of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity at a young age, the data that we do have is telling enough and may provide us with some valuable answers for how to change these statistics.
What we are seeing through recent studies is that LGBTQ youth “who experience high levels of rejection from their families during adolescence (when compared with those young people who experienced little or no rejection from parents and caregivers) were more than eight times likely to have attempted suicide, more than six times likely to report high levels of depression, more than three times likely to use illegal drugs and more than three times likely to be at high risk for HIV or other STDs” by the time they reach their early 20s. —Caitlin Ryan’s Family Acceptance Project (San Francisco State University)
The good news here is buried in the numbers. These same studies also show that when family members, particularly parents, respond positively when confronted with their child’s non-heterosexuality or gender identity, those statistics improve drastically. But what exactly does a positive response look like? What does it sound like?
How can you respond in a loving way that could possibly save your child’s life?
What to say if your child tells you they are gay
While you may not feel like you still have much influence over your teen or tween, research shows that a positive initial reaction from a parent has great impact. Suicide rates and feelings of emotional security are drastically improved. You are a powerful ally in helping to protect them against depression and other high-risk behaviors such as drug abuse, promiscuity, suicidal thoughts, academic spiral, social disconnect, and low self-esteem.
Additionally, recognize that this may be news to you, but it is not news to them. They have been considering their sexual orientation or gender identity for a long time, and it has taken great courage on their part to tell you.
What to say:
- Thank them for trusting you. Respect their courage and honesty.
- Follow this up with an assurance of your love. Affirm that you love them just as they are, without change, and that your love is not conditional.
- Tell them specific things you like and appreciate about them, i.e., you are a caring brother, you are so kind, you are a very hard-working student.
- Tell them you are proud of them and glad they are your child.
What Not To Say:
- Be careful not to express your concerns at this point, whatever those may be. Seek a place to share those privately, such as a trusted friend or counselor. Your child needs your assurances, not your concerns.
- Do not negate what they have told you by saying it’s just a phase, or asking if they are sure, or saying you do not believe them.
- Do not ask what you did wrong.
- Do not suggest that counseling might change them.
- Maybe don’t talk at all. Just listen. Strong Family Alliance, a non-profit that exists to help parents of LGBTQ youth, suggests practicing “Wait—Why Am I Talking?”
Parents do not have to be in a perfect place or have all the answers to respond in a positive way. It is okay to still have questions. This journey may be just beginning for you, but your child wants you to be on it with them.
- It is very important to maintain the same level of physical affection that you’ve always shown. Your child is likely very sensitive right now, and any change will be seen and felt by them as rejection.
- Educate yourself. A good place to start is by getting clarity on a few terms, especially the basics such as sexual orientation and gender identity, which are not the same things. Sexual orientation is about attraction to another person. Gender identity is about self-perception, a sense of being male or female. A great resource for other terms can be found at Strong Family Alliance-A Working Vocabulary.
- Find out what science has to say about homosexuality, heterosexuality, and gender identity. What we know about the science of sexual orientation.
- Read about some of the myths you may or may not still hold as truth. 10 Anti-Gay Myths Debunked.
- Be verbal in your support of LGBTQ persons. Always assume there is an LGBTQ person present when speaking on or about the subject. Always assume someone is listening intently and speak out against discrimination in any form, even jokes. Your child will notice and perceive it as love.
If you are the parent of a child who has just come out, and you are struggling for support, Strong Family Alliance is one source. They are a non-profit based in Austin, Texas founded by people who were once in your shoes. Their mission is to save lives and preserve families by helping you know what to expect and help you find a hopeful path for your family.
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