How to Support Your Child Who Came Out
by Sarah Sarah Engelskirchen-Bugler, MA, LMHCA, NCC
According to the Trevor Project, 10.5% of youth in the United States between ages thirteen and eighteen identify as LGBTQIA+. This means that more individuals have been able to find language to describe and validate their experiences. In addition, more resources and safe spaces are available to the LGBTQIA+ community than ever before. Nevertheless, LGBTQIA+ individuals, particularly queer youth and queer people of color, face discrimination that increases the likelihood of developing mental health challenges in response to the trauma of being a part of one or more marginalized communities. In fact, while suicide is the second largest cause of death among young people, queer youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts according to Out. In honor of Pride Month this June, it is important for parents and other adults who interact with queer youth to be knowledgeable of how to best support an LGBTQIA+ child or teen, especially when they choose to come out to an adult they trust. The “coming out” process refers to an individual who is choosing to share their sexuality or gender identity with someone else. This article will focus primarily on resources for parents to support their children who are coming out to them; however, these resources can also be applicable to other relationships as well.
What Does LGBTQIA+ Mean?
LGBTQIA+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, and all other queer identities that fall along the spectrum. Sexuality and gender identity are different categories; however, both are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Some words such as “transgender” and “queer” are umbrella terms that include a range of other more specific identities. For example, anyone who is not heterosexual and/or not cisgender may choose to utilize the label “queer.” The term “transgender” refers to people whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex; this term also includes non-binary and other gender-nonconforming people. As there are a plethora of sexualities and gender identities, it is important to utilize resources to better understand what a specific term means if you are unfamiliar with it. You may also ask what a certain term means specifically to the person coming out to you because there can be differences even among those who use the same categorical label by which they refer to themselves.
What to Avoid
What are some phrases, questions, or comments you may want to avoid when someone comes out to you? As always, it is important to consider the relationship you have with the person as well as what boundaries the other person has set regarding conversations around their identity. A good rule of thumb is to not say phrases such as “I knew all along” or “it’s just a phase.” Telling someone that you always knew might be comforting to some, but it could also create a lot of anxiety for others who fear people have “been able to tell” without them actively making the choice to share. Along with this, it is important to never “out” someone by telling others someone’s sexuality or gender identity; it is always the individual who should have the power and choice of if and when to share their identity. In addition, saying that what someone is experiencing is “just a phase” invalidates the person’s experiences and who they know themselves to be. While gender identity and sexuality can be fluid and change over time, it is not within anyone’s control. Remember that individuals are the experts of their own stories, and no one is choosing to identify a certain way “as a trend.” When someone trusts you enough to come out to you, do not ignore it. Listen to their experiences and provide a safe space without shaming them. It is also imperative to not use incorrect pronouns or deadname someone. “Deadnaming” is often a traumatic experience that refers to using a transgender person’s old name they no longer use rather than their chosen name.
Ways to Support
So what can you do instead? In order to create a safe space for someone to discuss their identity openly and authentically with them, start with listening without judgment. Let them know you believe them, you love them, and thank them for telling you because it is a courageous thing to do. You might ask specifically what support they need and perhaps find support and resources for yourself as well so you can better show up for your loved one. In addition, utilize gender-affirming pronouns and their chosen name with transgender individuals. In fact, according to the Trevor Project, trans and nonbinary youth who have their correct pronouns respected by most people in their lives are fifty percent less likely to attempt suicide, and acceptance from at least one adult can decrease the risk of LGBTQIA+ youth attempting suicide by forty percent. Above all, respect your loved one’s boundaries. They are not required to tell you anything they do not want to, and you can empower them further by checking in about what they are okay with discussing and what they are not okay with discussing throughout the conversation.
Great resources for parents and anyone else who has a queer loved one include the Trevor Project, GLSEN, PFLAG, and Out. Contact Embrace Therapy directly for resources or mental health support if you or your loved one are struggling. Happy Pride!