If you’re straight and your teen isn’t, you may feel out of your depth. It’s hard enough raising any teen…but if your kid is gay or trans or queer, their experience may be very different from what you went through.
How do you “get it”? How can you keep your connection strong?
Good news: Most of what you need for a good relationship with an LGBTQI teen is the same as what you need with any other kid: abundant love and clear limits.
(No teen likes limits, of course, but they need them. Knowing we’re stable and clear gives them the platform they need to start stretching their wings and preparing to fly off into the world.)
At the same time, some things are different when your kid has a gay, lesbian or bi-sexual orientation or a nonconforming gender identity. Their world is a little more complicated—and their need for love and support from you is greater.
How To Build A Strong Relationship With Your Gay Teen
Use Their Language
One of the most important ways to show support for your LBGTQI teen is using the language and pronouns they prefer. They’ll probably tell you how they describe their orientation and identity; honor that choice and use it. If you’re not clear about why they identify as, say, “pansexual” rather than “bisexual,” ask.
Using the preferred language tends to be trickiest when someone is transgender, queer, intersex, or otherwise nonbinary. If you’ve been calling your child “he” for years and now it’s “she” or “they” or “ze,” that can take some getting used to. It’s reasonable for your kid to cut you some slack if you slip up sometimes, but it’s loving and respectful to do your darnedest to get it right most of the time.
Let Them Tell or Not Tell
It may be tempting to tell the family or your friends when your kid comes out; you may even think you’re being helpful. Nope.
Whether, when, and to whom to come out about their orientation or gender identity is up to your child. It’s their story to tell, not yours.
It’s fine, even a good idea to ask your child if they’d like your help sharing the news. Some kids do want parents to take a role, maybe with specific people (Grandma? Super-conservative Uncle Tony?). They might want you to consult about how and when to share the news with family or the wider community. But the final decision is theirs.
Ask about Bullying
In some communities, LGBTQI kids are easily accepted. In others, not so much. Sadly, teasing and bullying still happen. Ask your child about their experience and how they’ve handled it.
If they’ve been teased or bullied, of course be sympathetic—but don’t assume you should jump in to try and fix things. As upsetting as it is to know your child is being mistreated, sometimes parents getting involved only escalates the situation. Ask your child if they’d like you to help, either by talking to the school administration or by strategizing with them about ways to respond to bullies.
Learn about Any Medical Issues
If your child is gay, lesbian, bi, or otherwise non-heterosexual, the only medical concern you’re likely to need to address is STI protection, same as you would with any other kid. (And if they never have penis-in-vagina sex, you’re actually spared worry about unplanned pregnancy.)
But if your child is intersex, transgender, or otherwise gender nonconforming, some medical research may be in order. Science is evolving on this; experts in the field are assessing how best to use transition options including puberty blockers, hormones, and surgery.
The younger your child is, the more involved you’ll have to be. As long as they’re covered by your health plan, you’ll have some role with medical questions.
Consider Advocating on LGBTQI Issues
Some parents find it helpful to get involved as an ally in the LGBTQI community, maybe by joining a group like PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). That gives you some support and a place to ask questions, and your involvement will make your teen feel loved and supported.
You might even be inspired to get involved in advocacy. Before you start working for change in any public way, just make sure your teen is okay with it. Most LGBTQI young people are thrilled when parents lobby for fairer laws—provided they’re ready for the exposure they’ll get indirectly.
Stay Curious about Their Love Life
Some gay young adults have told me that after they came out, their love life sort of disappeared from family conversations. Their parents might have accepted them as gay…but they never asked about who they were dating and what those relationships were like.
LGBTQI young people need the same kinds of conversations as any other teens. You don’t want to be intrusive about their love life, but definitely ask about their relationships. Just as with any teen, you want to get to know your kid’s date(s), talk about healthy relationships, ask occasionally what they like and don’t like about their relationship, and ask if they’re in love.
Let It Unfold
Being LGBTQI is a life-long thing; your teen’s orientation or gender identity may affect their lives in different ways at different stages, to a greater or lesser degree. Stay curious. Just as you’ll watch your child’s hobbies, academic and professional interests, and friendships change over the years, notice and talk about what being LGBTQI means to them, how it impacts their daily life, etc. It’s all about watching them become the fascinating adults they’re going to be.
This post was contributed by Jill Whitney, LMFT. She is the mom of two twenty-somethings and a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut. In addition to her clinical work, she conducts workshops on talking about sexuality, writes at KeepTheTalkGoing.com, and has been quoted in dozens of articles on relationships and sexuality. She’s passionate about improving communication about sexuality, especially between parents and kids.