Raising LGBTQ+ Children & Teens
By Erica Heller
8 minute read
As a parent, what brought you to this topic? Maybe it was a text you read on your teen's phone, or a conversation you overheard. Whatever it might be, you're in the right place if you are trying to determine the best way to navigate this new situation.
Being a parent doesn't come with an instruction manual. Life would be a lot easier if it did! It can be especially challenging if you're a parent raising a child who is different than you in some way. If that's what you're currently facing, then you are likely being forced outside your comfort zone. Being here is a great start to helping you and your child move through these challenges.
What does LGBTQ+ mean?
Let's start with the basics. LGBTQ+ is an acronym which represents various identities related to sexual orientation and gender identity. The letters LGBTQ+ stand for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and more. Though LGBTQ+ may sound limited to these areas, it actually represents many more identities within this population.
- Sexual orientation refers to what gender you are attracted to, and whether this is the same as your gender identity.
- Romantic orientation represents who you are romantically attracted to.
- Gender identity refers to which gender you identify as and whether this aligns with your sex assigned at birth.
- Gender expression relates to how you express your gender through clothing or other means (feminine, masculine, other).
One other term you will see around this topic is heteronormative. Heteronormative refers to the social "norm" around heterosexual and cisgender identities. In society, the default is that relationships consist of one male and one female, or that a person can identify only with the gender they were assigned at birth: male or female. As a parent learning about this subject there is a strong chance you identify as heterosexual, meaning you are attracted only to the opposite gender, sexually or romantically. It is also likely that you identify as cisgender with the related gender expression, meaning you identify as a female and wear feminine clothing or identify as male and wear masculine clothing. All are valid identities and help us understand more about how we each relate to one another.
Many people believe sexual orientation and gender identity are a choice, but research shows us this is not the case. As a parent you may find greater acceptance and compassion by understanding that sexual orientation and gender identity are not something your child will willfully choose.
Coming Out 101: What Parents Should Know
For a teen, being curious and exploring sexual orientation and/or gender identity can be a scary process. Children and teens who are exploring LGBTQ+ identities need validating and supportive people in their lives. One of the most important things you can do is to validate your child's or teen's feelings by listening, and being open minded about their emotions and experiences they are sharing. LGBTQ+ kids and teens will seek people they determine as someone whom they can safely come out to. "Coming out" refers to sharing an identity with others, whether it be that they have a crush on someone of the same sex or gender, or they determine they do not feel comfortable in their own body with their current or assigned gender. As a result of living in a society that is typically heteronormative, members of the LGBTQ+ community must constantly learn how to live in a culture that does not look like them.
Coming out to loved ones and family can be scary and your child will feel vulnerable in doing so, even when they are coming out to someone they can trust and feel safe with. Usually there is a fear of rejection or not being accepted by the people that are important to them. So even if you are open minded and accepting, it is also good to be aware of the emotions and fears your child may be facing. Thank your child for trusting you and talking to you. Let them know you are willing to learn about what they may need and that you will be there to give them support.
A few examples are below:
"Thank you for trusting us, we support you and who you are. All we want is for you to be happy and healthy."
"Thank you for sharing this with me, I know it must have been difficult for you. I'm glad you felt you could come to me and trust me with this information. I am here for you. What support do you need from me?"
It is okay to ask your child or teen how you should address their sexual orientation or gender identity with others in the family and community. Depending on your child's age, the topic of gender identity and sexual orientation will also come up outside of the family unit. By being direct in communicating with your child, you can both be prepared with how to handle these conversations when they come up.
It is important to remember that LGBTQ+ come out over and over during a lifetime. Every new social encounter, whether it be with a coworker, teacher, friend, or neighbor, is a potential person who may not accept or understand them. Recognize that it is always the choice of your child or teen to decide to whom and when they come out. It is never the place of a parent or family member to do so for them.
Strive to be nonjudgmental. Be gender or sexuality affirming (we will talk more about this a bit later). Let them know that you will do your best to continue learning more about the topic and that you will support them in this process as you move forward together.
What to do if your child is not ready to "come out?"
If your suspect your child might be LGBTQ+ but they have not discussed it with you it is okay. Help your child feel more comfortable by watching movies or shows that portray LGBTQ+ people, as a family. Talk to your child about an LGBTQ+ celebrity or someone whom your child may admire. When you see an advertisement or photo showing sexual orientation or gender identity diversity, let them know that you are okay and accepting of people with these identities.
Why is it important for us to learn about LGBTQ+ identities?
Unfortunately, LGBTQ+ youth face higher risks of suicide, drug and substance abuse, violence and bullying, and homelessness. Rejection, bullying, or being cut off from those they care about contribute to the added challenges for LGBTQ+ children and teens. Rejection includes "preventing young people from having LGBTQ friends, telling them God will punish them because of their identity, and not standing up for them when others mistreat them."
The Trevor Project is a national nonprofit organization focused on crisis intervention and suicide prevention for the LGBTQ+ community. They claim that "LGBTQ youth represent as much as 40% of the homeless youth population. Of that population, studies indicate that as many as 60% are likely to attempt suicide."
What if my child's or teen's sexual orientation or gender identity does not align with my own beliefs?
This can be a tough topic to think about as a parent. You have your own idea of what you might expect your child's life to look like and probably want it to align with your own beliefs and values. Many parents have been in your place. Organizations like PFLAG exist to support parents and families of LGBTQ+ folks. For parents of faith, there are specific resources to help you navigate this time to bring you and your family closer together. Seek positive resources in your denomination.
When is the right time to start to talk about gender and sexuality with my child?
It is never too early to talk to your child or teen about gender and sexuality. From birth, babies are assigned a gender (male or female) and typically provided with clothing, toys, and dialogue around that gender. Gender stereotypes (for example, pink is for girls, blue is for boys) are common in our culture. By encouraging your child to explore beyond these assigned gender norms you're showing that you are open-minded.
Try not to reinforce a stereotype (whether it be gender role or sexuality) with statements like "that toy is only for boys," "it is not okay for boys to wear makeup," or "only girls can wear dresses." These can be harmful to a developing child's self-esteem and emotional development.
Allow your child creative freedom to wear clothes that may be masculine and/or feminine. Refrain from shaming your child for their desire to explore outside of the "norm." By doing so, you are creating a safe space for them to feel seen, accepted, and validated.
What are some other considerations I need to keep in mind to support my LGBTQ+ child or teen?
Medical care and mental health care
When it comes to seeing a doctor (or any type of medical or mental health professional), it is important for your child to get gender affirming care. As a parent, you have to be your child's advocate. And medical care is often a time when LGBTQ+ folks typically experience exclusion or rejection.
Bias: What is it and what do we do with it?
Bias refers to the verbal and nonverbal ways parents communicate to their children about their own personal preferences. Bias is a way of showing favored treatment toward one child over another, or directly or indirectly conveying prejudice. Think about how you may be communicating with your LGBTQ+ child or teen compared to their sibling. Consider the tone of your voice and whether you are showing compassion. It's important to find your own support system and people who can help you better communicate with your child or teen.
When a teen or child does not feel accepted, there is a chance they will seek support from places that are more accepting of them. And often these can be unhealthy or potentially harmful ways to cope. This may look like avoidance, secrecy, or hiding.
Outside of your family
Think about other people in your family (grandparents, siblingsaunts, uncles, step-parents, friends, teachers) and how they may respond to your child's sexual orientation or gender identity. Are these people safe and supportive? Find ways to help your child in situations outside the home. Specific resources for school can be found at GLSEN, Q+EDU, and the Texas GSA Network.
How do I know if my child is getting the support they need?
Don't be afraid to ask them! Your child is going through many physical and emotional changes during their childhood, adolescent, and teenage years. In general, some warning signs to watch for with any age include withdrawing from others, intense or prolonged anger, self-harm, substance use or experimenting with drugs, secrecy or hiding, and risk-taking behavior, to name a few.
Remember your child's or teen's needs can and will change over time. As a parent, it's key to continue to provide support, listen, and validate your child's feelings. When you do, your child will feel important, loved, and heard. Parenting teenagers or children can be a challenge. As a parent you are not alone. There is support to help you navigate raising your LGBTQ+ child or teen.
- Gender & Sexuality Alliances (GSAs)
- Gender Spectrum
- Q+ EDU
- Strong Family Alliance
- Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER)
- The Trevor Project
- John Hopkins Medicine can be found here
- Crisis Text Line: Text START to 741-741
- Trans Lifeline English & Spanish | 877-565-8860 | Call
- The Trevor Project | 866-488-7386 | Text or Call
- Additional hotlines listed on the PFLAG website hotline directory.