If your child starts to become attracted to someone of the same sex or wants to break away from typical gender expressions (e.g., a boy wearing a dress), you're probably wondering, Is this just a phase? Buckle up, because it’s not simple.
The answer is yes and no. Some children have a clear sense whether they’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender from an early age and it never changes, while others might question and experiment with those identities only for a period of time. Most people report they have a sense of their orientation and gender identity in late childhood or early adolescence, around 10–13 years old. But that does not mean several people won’t experience periods of time where they may be attracted to someone of the same sex or wish to express their gender differently at any age.
Thinking about whether these changes are temporary is really just the beginner step to asking, What should I do? And luckily that answer is simple and can be summed up in three tactics: Be loving, ask questions and educate yourself. Before I explain the benefits of why you should follow these steps, I’ll make a case against why not.
Imagine coming to your parents to talk about something that might cause you to feel confused or even shameful. On top of that, what if you knew this thing you wanted to talk about could lead to being bullied, stigmatized and victimized? Then imagine your parent ignored what you said, argued against it, or plainly didn't believe you. Reflect on what that experience might be like.
Fortunately, you don’t have to just rely on your imagination. Several research articles correlate negative parent perceptions of their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity with disrupted parent-child relationships, exacerbated mental illness symptoms and in some cases self-harm. Those are not inherent components of coming out. These outcomes happen when a child perceives they are a burden to those around them because of who they are. Extra emphasis on perceives. As an adult, you hold the power to reduce that psychological pressure by being loving and supportive, helping them to understand their experiences, and through education.
Offer love and support. If a child comes to you with questions or statements about orientation or gender identity, first and foremost you need to offer reassurance that your love will be unrelenting. If nothing else, that is the takeaway.
Ask questions. In addition, be curious about what your child is experiencing and ask questions. It communicates interest and acceptance. Convenient as it would be to have a simple path and timeline for LGBTQ experiences, there just isn’t one. In the same way that not every aspect of a religious or racial minority perspective can be explained in just one book or just one person’s story. Delve into your child’s experience and take in what she says about herself.
Educate yourself. However, you don’t want to have your child be your only source of information. Ask LGBTQ friends, family members, local organizations and professionals for input. If you’re curious about what language is most appropriate, check out GLAAD.org. For the academic, look to scholar.google.com for peer-reviewed journals on LGBTQ research. And for those who prefer the medium of podcasts, listen to Unicorn Youth, which asks young people for their opinions firsthand. These resources are just a small starting point.
When weighing the choices of how to react to your up-and-coming child or adolescent, I hope this piece tips the scales toward you offering support, because the risks of responding negatively to these changes carries a much heavier cost.