As the mom of a transgender son, I know the strong rush of emotions parents may experience when a child reveals that they may be LGBTQ+. I felt everything from relief, illumination, and acknowledgment (“aha – that explains so much”) to fear, doubt and isolation.
Parents will be better able to navigate this journey if they first take a deep breath and recognize that the child is experiencing all those same emotions, plus so many more. Moreover, if your child is fairly typical, they likely have been grappling on their own with the questions and emotions around coming out for quite some time. By the time they build up the courage to reveal themselves to their parents, most kids will have been researching, exploring and dwelling on the questions of sexual orientation and/or gender identity for many months or even years.
When a loved-one eventually does come out to you, they are sharing with you the deepest, most authentic part of themselves and they may be deeply fearful of rejection by family and friends. Your reaction can have a profound impact on how your child moves toward self-acceptance and emotional well-being, rather than shame and its consequences. “It’s critical for families to know that their words and actions can make the difference between a happy, healthy, thriving child — or one at greatly elevated risk of depression, suicidal behavior and other harmful outcomes,” Ineke Mushovic, executive director of Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank, told NBC News. “Too many families, and the lives of too many transgender children, have been devastated by parents who reject these children or try to force them to be someone they’re not.”
Research published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide. The 2009 report also found these young adults were nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression and more than three times more likely to use illegal drugs. According to a 2016 study published in LGBT Health, family rejection increases the odds of substance misuse and suicide attempts in transgender and gender non-conforming people. These results mirror research by Dr. Caitlin Ryan and the Family Acceptance Project, which found that LGBTQ youth whose families affirm their gender identity and sexual orientation are almost 50 percent less likely to make a suicide attempt compared to those whose families are unsupportive.
While we know that family acceptance is critical to our LGBTQ+ youth, parents will have strong emotions -- fear, uncertainty, mourning over lost expectations, among so many others — that we can and must confront and come to terms with for ourselves. Accepting our kids fully does not require us to deny our own emotional needs. Finding the information and support we need for ourselves first empowers us to become the most loving and accepting supporters and advocates for our kids.
There are local chapters of national organizations, such as PFLAG and others listed below, that offer parents the information and support they need so that they can better support their LGBTQ+ kids. You will find that you are not alone — many families have walked down this path before you and they are proving that all of our families are stronger when we encourage our children to live their authentic, most loving and joyful lives.