The Journey for Parents
It can be a shock to learn a child is LGBTQ and there are definite stages most parents experience. The stages below do not always happen in order, or just once, and some may not occur at all. Some stages pass quickly, others slowly. These stages represent the struggle to accept an enormous change in your family.
Many life events can trigger old feelings. For instance, if your child begins to date, moves away to college, encounters bullying or a hurtful comment, you may feel as if you have gone backwards to one of the earlier stages. This is not uncommon. Allow yourself to work through those feelings and regain your balance.
Initial denial or disbelief is common. Although many of us might wonder if our child is gay even before they tell us, usually we suppress and deny this possibility out of fear of what the truth might do to our family.
Even after a child comes out, parents may hope that this is a phase, a rebellion, or an experiment. However, when a child takes the important step of telling a parent he or she is gay, it is important to take them at their word. This is difficult, because it means truly facing what being gay means for the child and for you.
Grief is sadness about a loss. We may grieve the loss of the child we “knew” and their hoped for future. We mourn the disappearance of the life we envisioned for them. It takes time to grieve the death of the dreams for our child that center around heterosexual life events. For example, a father may wonder if he will ever walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding.
As with many changes, over time new dreams are built and new hopes arise. Some hopes may transfer, such as changing the hope for a good wife/husband to hope for a good partner/spouse. But the fundamental hopes and dreams can endure, such as love and happiness, career success, or starting a family.
Many parents feel the need to determine a reason why, which leads to guilt or blame. We blame ourselves, wondering if we did something wrong. We blame our children for “changing” and for forcing us to readjust our vision. We might even blame their partners and other gay or transgender people, incorrectly believing that our child was drawn into this life through the influence of others.
Research shows being gay or transgender is not anyone’s fault. These are not illnesses, diseases, or choices. They are normal variants of human sexuality and gender identity that arise as the result of complex interactions of biological, genetic, and hormonal factors.
We fear breaking the silence and telling the truth. We fear being judged and losing our friends, family, and faith community. We fear the hatred, violence, and discrimination our children may encounter and endure. All of these are realistic possibilities for both parent and child, which makes it even more important to support each other and navigate the changes together.
Sometimes, fear may be justified. If you sense a friend or family member will be hostile, you can choose to protect your child by remaining silent about their LGBTQ identity. This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it is supportive to your child. Your child should determine who knows and when to tell, for they will bear the result.
When family is not open about their child’s identity is it sometimes referred to as the “Second Closet.” This can be a good thing if the child needs privacy, but it can be a very bad thing if the child views it as the silence of shame.
We may feel angry at…
- Ourselves for not recognizing the truth sooner.
- God for “allowing” our precious loved ones to be gay or transgender, because their lives may be more difficult. “Why me?” and “Why my child?” are common feelings.
- Our religious community for rejecting or condemning LGBTQ people and their families.
- Our child for causing upheaval in our family.
- Other family members when feelings intensify either for or against the LGBTQ child.
It’s important to deal with your own anger and not direct it toward your child. It may help to recall your child has honored you by trying to be truthful and honest. Deciding not to lie anymore is a strong motivation for many LGBTQ individuals.
With this stage comes the realization that it is we, not our
child, who must change. How?
- Redraw our family picture to include this new reality
- Support our child and the family they have or will create
- Surround ourselves with other loving parents and friends
- Find a nurturing faith community
- Learn all we can
Family members may not come to this understanding at the same pace, but as each person accepts and supports the LGBTQ child, the child will gain an increased sense of safety and community.
Quite simply, this means loving your LGBTQ child, not in spite of who they are, but just as they are.
Your acceptance of your LGBTQ child creates a safe space where they can build a good life and become their best self. They still need things parents can so powerfully provide such as love, encouragement, understanding, and a hopeful view of the future.
The Stages of Coming Out were excerpted and modified with permission from Richard Niolon, Ph.D., and Parents Reconciling Network.