Coming Out to Extended Family: How to Support Your Child

06.18.2024

So you’ve cleared the hurdle of your child coming out to you, but now they’re wondering about telling extended family members. This can be a scary prospect for many LGBTQ+ young people, so our job as parents is to make sure we’re helping them in the most respectful and loving way possible. Today we’ll share some tips and insights about how to do that while always following your child’s lead and instincts about who to tell and how to tell them.

Every coming out story is different, just as every family is different. How difficult or easy it was for your child to come out to you was determined by many factors, including your own identity, where you grew up, your religious views, your relationship with your child, etc. No two experiences are the same. We can say, however, that for most LGBTQ+ people and their parents, the coming out process is one that challenges the parent-child relationship and is tricky to navigate, especially at first.

Respect their process

Coming out to parents is often the first step in being open about gender identity and/or sexual orientation in the family context. It may be the only step your child wants to take for now. They may not be ready to tell other family members.

This is when having conversations about who they want to tell and how they’d like to tell them is absolutely crucial. After finding out your child’s LGBTQ+ identity, your instinct may be to call your sibling or parent and tell them the news, ask for advice, etc. As tempting as that is, you have to resist the urge. This is not your story to tell, and you don’t want to “out” your child without asking their permission first.

It might be helpful to make a list of extended family members and go through it with your child one by one. Who do they want to tell? Do they want to tell this family member directly? Would they prefer that one of their parents share the news? How much/little does your child wish to share with this person?

All this may seem tedious or overly structured, but it’s much better for your child and for your parent/child relationship to hash this out in as much detail as you can so the expectations are clear. Again, follow your child’s lead.

Help adjust expectations

It’s worthwhile to have a conversation with your child about how some family members might react. How much you have to explain will depend on your child’s age, but remember that you have some insight about your family members that they might not.

Remind your child that some family members might react in unexpected ways (positive or negative) and that no matter what, you’ll be there to support them.

It’s normal to worry that your older relatives will react poorly to your child coming out. They grew up with very different ideas about what it means to be LGBTQ+ (and may not even be familiar with that term). Be careful not to make assumptions, however. If your child is comfortable with telling older family members, then you have to respect that.

Something that we hear from parents is that older grandparents and aunts and uncles are often surprisingly supportive of their grandchildren and great nieces and nephews. Don’t let your fear get in the way of what could be a loving and affirming relationship for your LGBQT+ child.

On the other hand, your child doesn’t have an obligation to come out to anyone if they don’t want to. Some people choose not to come out to very elderly or ill relatives who are near the end of their life. Again, this is your child’s choice. Your child’s LGBTQ+ identity is just one facet of who they are, and they may not need everyone in their life to know about it to feel seen and loved.

Make a plan for family gatherings

If relatives are not supportive, the idea of family gatherings might seem uncomfortable at best, terrifying at worst. Talk to your child about what they’d like to do. Don’t force them to attend if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

Instead, make a game plan. What will you do if a family member is making negative or disrespectful comments about LGBTQ+ people? Let your child know you’ll stand up for them and you can leave if things get uncomfortable.

You may have to draw some hard boundaries with certain family members if they refuse to accept and respect your child. The most important thing is that your child feels safe and loved, and although that might put you in some difficult positions with relatives, it’s worth it. Remember that family acceptance is consistently the most important factor in determining the well-being and mental health of LGBTQ+ people.

Help your family members be good allies

For those family members who are supportive of your child, you can suggest ways to show love to your child. Be specific! Your family members might feel awkward and unsure about what to do with this information. If they are interested in having a strong relationship with your child, they’ll appreciate you sharing some concrete suggestions on how to behave in a loving and affirming way. Here are some ideas you can share:

  • Text or call them on a regular basis
  • Watch age-appropriate movies and/or shows with LGBTQ+ characters and talk about them with their LGBTQ+ relative
  • Comment on their social media posts, share their stories or other content from pro-LGBTQ+ accounts such as @sfamilyalliance and @PFLAG
  • Visit the Strong Family Alliance and PFLAG websites. Both are treasure-troves of helpful information on supporting LGBTQ+ children.

Navigating the family dynamics after your child comes out as LGBTQ+ can be complicated, but the bottom line is simple: let your child lead, and make sure they know that you’ve got their back every step of the way. Keep an open mind and be patient with yourself and your family members. This will get easier with time.

For more information about parenting LGBTQ+ kids, check out our website www.strongfamilyalliance.org

Sources

Guide for Parents of LGBQ Kids, Strong Family Alliance

How to Tell the Extended Family About Your LGBTQ Child, Jenie Hunter Coaching

Coming Out to Unsupportive Family Members, Out Maine