Responding to a Kid’s Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity

Alleged conversion therapy workshops at a local church sparked anger in the LGBTQ community. So, what's a better way to handle a child's coming out? A local therapist weighs in.

How would you react if your child told you that they thought they are gay or transgender?

The thought of an LGBTQ child elicits a variety of responses from people and parents across the board. Some respond in disbelief or anger, others in unwavering support and some simply give the child a little room to continue to explore and learn about themselves.

While most parents always want what’s best for their child, when your child tells you something that coincides with what you believe, it can be tough to find balance and peace for yourself while also offering the support and love your child needs.

Recently, a local church caused waves by offering what many are calling conversion therapy workshops. While conversion therapy has been largely denounced, such offerings can be even more confusing to parents who are already struggling. So, to nix some of that confusion and to help parents create an accepting and healthy environment for their LGBTQ child, an expert weighs in on some more helpful ways to respond.

What is conversion therapy?

Conversion therapy is a type of behavioral therapy that began in the 1950s when the American Psychological Association claimed that homosexuality was a mental disorder, according to a 2014 article by Psychology Today.

Conversion therapy essentially aimed to stop homosexual people from being homosexual through therapy sessions and, later in the 1960s and 70s, even shock therapy.

These days, the APA denounces such practices and states that they are “unlikely to be successful” and even harmful to the patients. As of January 2017, nine states have actually banned the practice, though Michigan is not one of them.

Joseph Lempicki, a psychotherapist with Henry Ford Health System’s Behavioral Services and member of the system’s Transgender Health Committee agrees that there’s little evidence to prove that conversion therapy works and likens it to the treatment of left-handed people in the past.

“When I was a young man, or prior to my time, people that were left-handed were in the wrong place,” he says. “This comes from the ancient teachings that favored the right side of a ruler or a monarch, so the left hand was lesser or almost demonic. We believed that for years and left-handers were punished until we came to realize through research that it’s not a matter of nature verses nurture, it’s genetic or a neurological issue.”

He adds that it took a long time for science to figure out this genetic anomaly and it will likely take many years of research before we learn why people are LGBT and that until we do, such therapy could indeed be harmful.

“Conversion therapy is the idea that we can change the nature of someone rather than their environment (and that) we can change it because it’s a chosen lifestyle, but we don’t have the biological information to know if it’s (chosen),” he says. “We may find out that it’s natural (and then) what damage are we doing to people if it turns out that it is a natural anomaly?”

Understanding your child

To Lempicki, the first step any parent – but especially a parent of an LGBTQ child – should take in regards to their child’s sexuality is to understand the changes that the child is going through during puberty, which is when they may start to explore their gender identity and sexual orientation.

“During puberty and pre-puberty they are confused anyway,” he says. “(They’re thinking about) future lifestyles, careers (and really) everything is confusing for them.”

Still, if the child does bring up that they are LGBT or questioning, parents should react calmly and shouldn’t try to place blame because blame implies negativity.

“When a child presents this, sometimes parents will come out with ‘oh my god, what have I done?’ Well, they’ve done nothing,” he explains. “When they say ‘what have I done?’ it’s perceived as a negative thing when it may be a true identity issue.”

A better way to deal

Once the child has “come out” to you or makes you aware that they are questioning, Lempicki says that parents should help their child find accurate information.

“I’ve had transgender patients that buy drugs online. I think kids can do the same thing if they want to investigate something,” he says. “If parents don’t direct them toward healthy sources, they might get wrong information.”

He also suggests that parents who are struggling with the information seek out groups like PFLAG, which offers literature, religious support and parental support from individuals that have been in your shoes and can help you work through your emotions and answer your questions so that you can accept your child, even if you don’t approve.

“Parents have to understand that they don’t have to approve but they have to accept their children as who they are (because) their children are seeking acceptance not approval,” Lempicki says. “Parents automatically think if they accept their child that they’re approving of the lifestyle but that’s not true.”

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