From the August 2019 issue

Parents Struggle Initially When Kids Come Out, Study Says

It can take two years for mom and dad to come to terms with their child's sexuality. How can you adjust to the news without causing damage to your kids?

A young boy in a rainbow comes out as gay while his parents struggle
Illustration by Jay Holladay

“But that’s not natural.”

Those were the first words to come out of Amanda Dalton’s mouth when her son Tristan, who was in the eighth grade and identified as female at the time, told her he was gay.

“To this day, I eat those words every time I think back to that moment,” Dalton, a mom of two from Wolverine Lake, says. She recalls stumbling through the rest of that initial conversation – reiterating that she didn’t care who Tristan loved because she loved him. Yet Dalton struggled to adjust, and it ultimately took two years for her to come to terms with the fact that Tristan is gay.

Dalton isn’t alone. In fact, according to a study of 1,200 parents of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth ages 10 to 25, parents who learned about their child’s sexual orientation two years prior reported struggling just as much as parents who had recently found out.

The study, which is the first of its kind, was conducted via questionnaire on the website for the Lead With Love film – a documentary providing support, information and guidance for parents whose children recently came out. These survey findings have led study authors to call for solutions to support parents during this adjustment period – in order to keep their children safe and healthy, too.

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After all, two years is a long time for a child, says David Huebner, associate professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health and author of this study.

“For a child in high school, that’s your entire junior or senior year, so if a parent is struggling with that news for that long during a critical period of your childhood, it can potentially have a very profound impact on a kid’s health and well-being,” Huebner says.

A lack of support from parents coupled with misinformation about homosexuality can lead to harm for their lesbian, gay or bisexual children. In fact, parents who respond negatively to their child’s sexual orientation can put those kids at an increased risk for depression, substance use, suicide and other negative outcomes, he adds.

For Dalton, finding the right support was key in her coming to terms with Tristan’s sexuality – but she had to journey down a difficult to get there.

Coming to terms

“Was he molested?”

“Was I not loving enough?”

These were some of the questions Dalton asked herself as she struggled to adjust to Tristan’s sexual orientation. She felt she needed to find a reason for Tristan, now 21, to be gay – and all this searching temporarily disconnected her from her faith.

“I basically walked away from God and the church for two years because I couldn’t handle looking at my child as less than or an abomination or unworthy in any way, shape or form because of who my child was attracted to,” Dalton says. It took time, but Dalton finally reached her turning point thanks to social media, where she encountered two different Christian support groups that helped Dalton get to a place of acceptance – not only with her son, but also with her faith.

Parental support is integral to this process, Huebner says. Parents struggle because they care about their children and because they are worried – but they also have learned a lot of the same inaccurate information, he adds.

That’s why Huebner developed Lead With Love, which contains evidence-based resources for parents, including its documentary film, to help support parents who have just learned about a child’s sexual orientation.

“We want to make sure parents feel understood first,” he says. Once they do, that opens the door to providing them with information and gentle guidance about their behavior.

Leading with love

Their behavior on this journey is important to their child’s well-being. That’s why Huebner suggests parents remember to LEAD.

  • L: Let your affections show. “Do affectionate things toward your child. Tell them you love them,” he says.
  • E: Express your pain away from your child. “It’s perfectly natural for this to be hard for you but if you cry in front of your kid about this, if you talk to your kid about how hard it is for you, that feels rejecting.” Talk to a spouse, friend or trusted family members instead.
  • A: Avoid rejecting behaviors. No name-calling, kicking your child out of the house, telling them they are going to hell or saying things like, “Maybe you shouldn’t dress so gay,” or, “I wish you wouldn’t tell people about this.”
  • D: Do good before you feel good. “That’s particularly salient giving our current findings,” he says. “It’s going to take a long time for you to feel OK about this, but you need to step up and say the right thing even before you’re ready to.”

And remember, your child’s well-being and emotional health is at stake, Dalton says. “It is your job to protect them and love them to the best of your ability.”

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