Through the years I’ve talked with many parents as a child came out and over time I’ve seen changes. I want to point out two notable changes that affect parents as their child comes out. I also want to point out new information about this experience every parent should know.
Children Coming Out at Younger Ages
One change is that children are coming out at younger ages. An article from The Guardian in 2008 reported “a poll for Stonewall of 1,500 people who were already out found that among the over-60s the average age they had come out was 37. But those in their 30s had come out at an average age of 21, and in the group aged 18 to 24 it was 17.” However, it’s still dropping, according to a Buzzfeed interview with Caitlin Ryan, a Ph.D. at San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project. She’s has been researching LGBT adolescents for over 25 years and began in-depth interviews with queer youth in the early 2000’s. “We found the average age of coming out was a little over 13, and it’s dropping down even more.”
Family Connection is an Important Shield
A second change is the understanding of how key parent acceptance is to the health and safety of the child. LGBTQ youth are at more risk of suicide attempts, depression, homelessness, illegal drug use, violence and bullying than heterosexual youth. (See our pages on Risks for Your Child and Helping Your Child for details on both.) The antidote is continued parental connection and protection; all these risks drop to near-average levels when family connections are preserved.
Moreover, these two findings combine to create another truth. As children come out at younger ages they are also living in the home longer, which makes parental acceptance and support even more important.
Time Improves Parent Acceptance
But here’s one new insight that can help parents: with time, understanding, connection and acceptance all improve. A 2019 study jointly with San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project found it takes around 2 years for families to find it’s less difficult to accept this change for their child. This is completely in line with I find in working with parents.
There are several reasons for this.
- Time to process: Often the child has been considering this change for years, but it may be a shock for the parents. Even parents who wonder if their child is LGBTQ can find the confirmation brings a flood of emotions and worry. This is usually a big disconnect between the two perspectives.2
- Emotional state: The child often feels a sense of relief in finally confiding in someone they love. They may be euphoric or have the sense of a burden lifted. Parents on the other hand often feel a cascade of fear, worry, guilt, confusion, and lack of understanding. They wonder if they did something wrong, if this is a stage, fear how their family or community will respond, and struggle to reconcile faith/societal beliefs.2
- Social awareness: My daughter came out 20 years ago but recently said to me, “I used to think you worried too much, but now I understand.” Parents are more aware of hostility toward LGBTQ in the press and society, of increased risks during social activities like dating or going out, how even strangers can be hateful, and that opportunities ranging from education to jobs can be affected by prejudice. To avoid pushing all these worries onto your child while trying to make them aware is a tough balancing act. 2
- Changing dreams: Parents have hopes and dreams of what their child’s future can be. Accepting their child as LGBTQ comes through a process of revising that future outlook and building new dreams for their child. In fact, one of the best supports a parent can provide is an optimistic view of their child’s future, but it may take time to develop a new view. One finding in the study is that parents whose child came out at an older age may struggle more, perhaps because they have invested more time in imagining a traditional, heterosexual future for their child, making it more difficult to adjust to a different reality. 2
All of these can combine to explain how parent attitudes can change over time. It’s interesting that the study found a change at around two years. That provides time for coming to terms with the challenges above. Even more encouraging is that the degree of comfort parents feel continues to increase over time.
Be Patient With Yourself
The key point is it takes time. Our website is full of information that can help you work through this change in your family. Our eBook guide can be downloaded for future reference. Read the family stories. Come back when you need more. We really want to help if we can.
One final suggestion I would make is to help others. If you know someone whose child is coming out connect with them. Welcome your child’s friends to your home and provide a safe place. Find some LGBTQ support community online or in your town where you can lend a hand. Helping others who face this challenge can be very affirming.
I wish you well on the journey. I have found parenting an LGBTQ child the greatest learning experience of my life and one that has made me more humble and loving. I hope your experience is positive as well…in time.