Q: I think my son might be gay. How do I ask him, so I can tell him that I’m supportive?
A: I have been working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) kids and the community for many years, and one thing I can say for sure is it is generally not a good idea to ask anyone, including your child, if he or she is gay, lesbian or bisexual.
So, what’s a parent to do if she thinks her child may be LGB and she wants her child to know that she is supportive? “Coming out” – that is, the process of determining identity, what this means in the person’s life and how to integrate this, including how to tell people – is a process that each person has to navigate for himself or herself. While it might be painful to watch your child struggle, you can’t rush this, figure it out or do it for him.
What you can do is create a responsive, supportive, accepting environment that allows him to figure out who he is, whether he is gay, bisexual or straight. This process starts not when you think your child might be LGB, but before your child even has language. The more you demonstrate an appreciation for differences in others and your children as they develop, the more you are creating an accepting environment for a child to explore who he or she is.
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Here are some things you can do to be supportive:
• Use inclusive language, so that you are not assuming your child and people in general are heterosexual and that their partners could not be male, female or both.
• To demonstrate inclusivity, make sure gay family, friends and colleagues are part of your family’s life, and be openly supportive of LGBT people and issues.
• Be patient and sensitive to your child’s process. Many times, kids will not share things before they are ready. This may not be a reflection of your relationship with them, how accepting the environment is or concerns that he thinks you might not be supportive.
• Communicate comfort and openness to all concerns or subjects your child might wish to discuss. Nothing should be off the table or pushed. This is best achieved by appropriate modeling, which means the less you avoid difficult topics and issues, the more you are modeling this for your child.
• In general, don’t make a big deal about things your child talks to you about, or take action that might affect them without their input. Kids are sensitive to parental overreaction and control, and if they think this is what will happen, they are not likely to share, especially the stuff you really want them to share.
It says wonderful things about you as a parent if you want to help ease your child’s struggles and communicate support and acceptance of your child who might be questioning or defining his sexual orientation and identity. However, unless your child is sharing this with you, your support is best offered indirectly until your child is ready. Don’t underestimate the power of being a gently supportive presence in your child’s life.
Michelle Topal, MSW, LCSW, is the owner and a therapist at Change for Living Counseling ( changeforlivingcounseling.org) in Raleigh.