Therefore, families giving their support, especially when children are young, can be imperative in their development. According to Mental Health America, personal, family, and social acceptance of sexual orientation and gender identity can positively impact the mental health and safety of LGBTQ individuals. Because youth are coming out at younger ages to their families, families need to make sure they are doing everything they can to support their children.
How can parents best do this? What steps can they take, and what do they need to understand when a child comes out to them?
Popping the heteronormative bubble
Parents naturally imagine lives and dreams for their children. But that kind of thinking can get in the way of remembering that children are each their own individual people—and will probably turn out differently than what they pictured.
“I have the belief that the majority of parents want the best for their children, but the best in the framework they understand,” says Eugenia Rodriguez, Psy.D., LMFT, a core faculty member in the School of Cultural and Family Psychology at Pacific Oaks College. Dr. Rodriguez is also the coordinator of the Latinx Family Studies and LGBTQIA+ Studies programs. “So if someone comes out with an LGBTQIA+ identity, then it might not fit the narrative of what parents think is best for them.”
Dr. Rodriguez has seen firsthand the struggle parents and guardians can have. As the former clinical supervisor at the LA LGBT Center RISE (Recognize Intervene Support Empower) program, she helped youth who were placed in systems of care because of their identity. The program’s main goal was to improve understanding and permanence in a supportive caregiver setting.
The narratives she kept seeing were similar.
“What we saw were parents, foster parents, family members who really loved their kids but just didn’t know how to love them in the context of supporting their identity,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “Maybe even unconsciously, in their mind, they had this dream bubble of what they wanted their child to be. When discussing a parent’s ‘mourning process’, I tend to have it framed more as this is a moment for parents to reconceptualize the idea they had of their child. For some parents, this is a quick process, for others it can take much longer. The parents, caregivers, family that have a difficult time understanding have to make room for themselves to get to know their child as a more complete version of themselves. For some it is a celebration, for others it feels like a loss, hence the ‘mourning.’”
Supporting families when a child comes out
Dr. Rodriguez can relate to the youth who have come out—everyone needs to come out twice. First themselves and then others. Once she realized she identified as queer, she finally told her parents three years later. How she explained it was they knew 99% of her—this was just an additional percentage.
“I think in that moment, I wanted them to be as accepting as possible, and just turn the switch and say, ‘I love you forever, because you’re my child,’” Dr. Rodriguez says. “I gave them significant less time in my mind to just understand and be accepting, when I gave myself three years to become comfortable with my identity. Sometimes we have to realize that parents have a process of understanding as well. And some parents are able to move forward quickly, while others have to take some more time.”
Now that children are coming out at younger ages, parents are often not afforded the chance to process on their own, as they would if their child was older and already living outside the home. For this reason, it’s imperative to support parents so they’re able to both support their kids while processing their own emotions.
“While emotional reactions can vary, what has to really be maintained is a way you provide support for your child,” Dr. Rodriguez says. “They’re coming to you as a parent, and as a child, they want their parent’s support, love, and acceptance. If you have these mixed emotions and your child came out to you, you need to be able to go through your own process, your own time, your own research, to work through it while still providing support—knowing that it is for you to work on, not with the child who came out. But if you have those mixed emotions, and you don’t provide that support, then you’re more likely to have your child feel that they’ve been rejected.”
Dr. Rodriguez cites that finding support groups and online references and resources can be useful. She also says groups like PFLAG, which started in 1972, is rife with information. Finding an affirming clinician for your child if they are struggling can also be helpful.
An affirming clinician who has an understanding that being LGBTQIA+ is part of the whole identity and how to integrate that can make a world of difference. It’s what Pacific Oaks teaches in its LGBTQIA+ Studies specialization in the Marriage and Family Therapy program. These affirming clinicians can also support parents to move past their own unconscious and internalized bias.
Ideally, one day, society can break out of the heteronormative mold so children don’t have to “come out”—they can just be accepted as they are. Dr. Rodriguez is hopeful, although she sees how much work has yet to be done.
“We’re living in a world where it is assumed that everyone’s default setting is heterosexual, and cisgender. That means anything that’s different or out of that ‘default’ setting, you have to actually have that discussion,” she says. “I think that the way people react to someone’s coming out definitely has an opportunity to shift. And that’s what we can do today to help.”
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