Parenting a Child Coming Out of the Closet
Before you do, say or think anything: breathe, and listen to your heart. You probably have been googling for hours, talked to God, a pastor or close friend, or maybe you’ve been too scared or ashamed to talk anyone about this. Whatever you are feeling: be it anger, pain, sadness, grief, love, humiliation; know that it’s okay, just remember your child is probably feeling the same emotions too.
Whether you think homosexuality is a sin, or you simply don’t know what to think, this article is for you. The goal here isn’t to try to recruit anyone to a different belief or stance on gay issues, but something much more important, protecting your relationship with your child.
This article will provide some suggestions and thoughts about how to approach your child’s coming out in a way that is real, authentic and grounded in strengthening your family. Remember this is not a one size fit all guide to parenting children who have come out; take what is meaningful for you, and move forward.
Getting What You Want
Close your eyes, fast forward 15 years and imagine yourself having the parent-child relationship you have always wanted. How is love expressed? How do you feel? Do you both feel safe in the relationship? What do you know about your child’s life; do they come to you for advice and support?
Take a few moments and write or about the emotions that came up for you; what are the goals you have for your relationship?
Now here is where the work comes in: as a leader in your family, you set the path that everyone follows. It is the same work that you have invested in your child since they were born: making sure they got to school every day, creating and affirming boundaries, discipline; now the work is expanding, because your child’s life is expanding as well. To create the relationship you want -regardless of their sexual identity, gender, etc; you will both have to put in the work.
Visualizing the relationship you want will make the work easier in the moments where you just want to scream, curse or hurt your child in the same way their truth hurt you. Holding onto that image of your future selves, will help you move past the trigger reactions you have towards your child’s coming out, and focus on what’s really important, your love for your child. That’s not to say either of you will be perfect in this process, but as the parent, it is your job to hold on to that love especially in the most painful and difficult moments.
So what is the work you ask?
If I could, I would tattoo the words “be honest about your feelings” on to the foreheads of all family members I have worked with going through the coming out process. The reason why I place such a huge emphasis on your emotions is because whether or not you acknowledge them, they play a huge force in how you are responding to your child’s coming out. A simple conversation about why no one is washing the dishes can all of a sudden turn into World War III, not because you are crazy, but because you are sitting on top of a mountain of emotions you have not acknowledged.
Thanks to a whole world of reality television, Maury Povich and soap operas, we tend to carry this belief that when our child comes out we must react immediately, or make some huge life changing decision about the relationship. Here’s the big secret: don’t. Your child has probably taken years to come to this point where they are able to come out to you; its okay if you take time as well to process. Give yourself the gift of time.
Granted, that can feel incredibly hard when your child is in front of you, or you have so many emotions inside you that you want to put to rest. But the relief and peace that you are seeking isn’t going to come from just making life changing decisions or statements; in fact making quick decisions without thinking them through could actually further complicate an already emotionally difficult time.
So now that we’ve talked about all of the reasons why you should take time; let’s talk about the harder piece, how to actually do that. In today’s modern world in between facebook, smartphones, stressful jobs, crazy friends, and extended families, the thought of taking time can feel like an Oprah-esque ideal that is only more stressful in practice. But here’s the truth, you can make time. Maybe it’s only for the first five minutes when you wake up , and the house is quiet, or my personal favorite, the time you zone out in front of the television. Turn off the television, and just breath, and focus on your heart. How is all this making you feel? I know people hate being asked that question, but there is a reason why therapists keep on asking it, despite the collective shudder of horror it triggers. You need to know how you feel about your child coming out.
More often than not, your feelings are about more than just your child’s sexuality. I have had parents confess that they feel like failures, or that they are scared that others will judge them as such. We live in a society where there are a number of stereotypes about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. Are you upset because you feel like your child is less of a man or a woman? Are you fearful for their life? Concerned about the transmission of HIV and/or other STIs? Or are you in shock?
Listening is one of the most powerful tools you have—listening to yourself and your child. When you feel overwhelmed, angry or scared, it is hard to make space to listen, because listening requires being able to engage with the other person and hear what they are saying---not what it triggers inside you. What I recommend to people in the beginning stages is communicating your needs. Now this may feel awkward as a parent to say that you need space or time from your child, but what you are doing is demonstrating a model of loving and honest communication that will set the tone for your future interactions. Also, by asking your child for what you need, shows your child that you are committed to the relationship, and that their coming out hasn’t changed your love for them. Below is a suggested script of how to engage with your child in the beginning.
What I want you to know is that you are my child and I love you, no matter what. This is hard for me, and I know it must be hard for you too. I am trying to figure out my feelings right now, and I hope you can be patient with me. I want this to be a moment that we can grow from. I need some time to think about what you’ve shared with me; I’m sure we are both going to say things that may hurt each other, but I hope you can trust that I’m not going anywhere. I’m your parent.
M. Saida Agostini is a licensed clinician, youth worker and poet who has worked with diverse communities around healing and trauma for the past ten years. If you are interested in contacting her regarding consulting opportunities, please email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.