How should I respond if my child comes out to me?
Welcome to the latest post in our series in which we answer some of the questions we have been sent. We have had a number of emails from parents of same-sex attracted people, asking whether there is anything particular they should do to support their children. Here I offer some advice and thoughts based on my own experience.
Love and accept them unconditionally
Let's start with the obvious, and the most important! Your child may well be nervous about how you will respond, so the most important thing is (calmly - see the next section) to thank them for telling you and feeling they could trust and be honest with you. Reassure them that it doesn't change your love for them or your relationship. If you share the perspective about sexual morality which we have on this website, it's almost certainly unhelpful to plunge straight into setting out what you think is the biblical teaching about sex! (Similarly, even if you think that there's nothing wrong with same-sex sexual relationships, it's probably not the time to tell them to go ahead and find one either.) That kind of conversation is just not what your child needs at this stage.
Yes, parents have a role to teach their children the way of Christ. But the way to do that at this stage is to show them the love of Christ. Rest assured that by doing so you are not doing something different to teaching them about Jesus! Rather, this is a chance for them to experience a glimpse of the unconditional way that their heavenly Father loves them (just like he loves you, despite all your problems, temptations and sins)!
Listen and ask lots of open questions
You can't predict from our stories or others you know what your child is feeling or thinking. So ask them open questions which show your child that you are a safe and accepting person to talk to, and that you are comfortable discussing this with them calmly, such as, 'I am happy for you to tell me anything, but I also don't want you to feel I am prying - how much do you want to tell me?' And of course, simply invite them to tell you their story so far: how did they realise, what is their thinking, how do they feel?
I mentioned just now that you have temptations and sins too. We are all fallen, and almost all of us struggle with sexual temptation. If you do not experience same-sex attraction, you probably experience opposite-sex attraction to people to whom you are not married instead! So, reassure them that you don't see yourself on any moral high ground above them. If appropriate, even mention (without details!) that you struggle with sexual temptation too and that you don't regard their feelings as any different to yours - we are all tempted and we all need grace and forgiveness.
Point them to good support but don't avoid supporting them yourself
This is a bit of a tightrope to walk! It's important for your child to feel that you are comfortable talking to them about this yourself, and that you are not shocked and therefore sending them off to someone else. At the same time, they may actually want and benefit from talking to others or finding out more for themselves. They may appreciate getting in touch with supportive organisations such as the True Freedom Trust, and reading their website, especially if they want to meet up with or hear from other people in a similar situation. As well as processing their feelings, they will hopefully want to think through the biblical and theological side of how they should live (if they are a Christian). Don't tell them what to think, although feel free gently to share your own opinion with them, but give them space to think this through for themselves safely. The web, Christian books, talking to pastors/youth leaders and so on may all be helpful for this, but depending on their age you may need to help them do this wisely, and whatever their age, be ready to talk through their thoughts and responses as they develop.
Take it seriously - don't deny it...
Depending on the age of the child, some parents may be tempted to deny that their children have same-sex attractions or a same-sex orientation - or tempted to trivialise it, e.g., by saying something like 'Oh, lots of people have crushes on people of the same sex at your age - it doesn't necessarily mean anything. You might grow out of it.'
It is true that for some people, same sex feelings are purely a feature of adolescence. But putting it like this is unhelpful for at least three reasons. First, it doesn't take seriously the powerful nature of the feelings themselves at the time, and the concern this may be causing your child. Whether their feelings last or not, they need to be taken seriously as long as they are there. Telling them they do not really feel how they feel is a recipe for damaging their trust and ability to be open with you. Second, there is no way at all of telling whether your child is someone whose sexual feelings will change as they get older, or whether their current attractions are permanent - in which case, telling them that they might grow out of it could well be setting up an unrealistic expectation. But third, and most importantly, such a statement still makes the assumption that being 'straight' is the normal sexuality which they are deviating from - whereas, as I have just pointed out, 'straight' sexuality is equally fallen from God's good original created purposes.
... but don't blow it out of proportion
I appreciate that this is another tightrope! For ages, I delayed telling my parents about my sexuality. I knew they would not reject me, but I worried that they'd react too strongly in their reassurance and acceptance. I didn't want to be coddled with sympathy or treated differently because of my sexuality. I just wanted to be 'normal' Sean (whatever normal means, anyway), the way I had always been. I know now that I did not need to worry about this, but I did worry! So, whilst you must accept what your child says and take it seriously, try not to overreact either - either because you are upset, or because you are so keen to reassure them. They do need reassurance, but make sure you don't 'protest too much' - one of the things they may need to be reassured about is that this doesn't change anything. They are still themselves. Whilst their sexuality is an important part of them that you must accept and not deny, it is not the whole of who they are.
Don't speculate about causes
The fact is, nobody knows for sure what causes anyone's sexual orientation - whether straight, L, G, B, T, or something else (check out Ed Shaw's article on 'Why are some people same sex attracted?'). So, speculating with your child about the origins of their sexuality will probably not get you anywhere anyway. Maybe one day some study will definitively prove what shapes our sexuality, but in the meantime there is a lot we don't know. (For what it's worth, if one day we do reach a scientific understanding of the origins of sexuality, my money is on these origins being a complex mixture of genetic, hormonal and circumstantial factors, and not being something we can simplistically pin down to one single factor anyway.) But more importantly, speculating with your child sends him or her the not-so-subtle message that you are uncomfortable with their sexuality and don't regard it as 'normal' (whereas, as I keep pointing out, nobody's sexuality is 'normal' in a fallen world). Very few 'straight' people feel the need to think through the origins of their sexuality (e.g., 'why am I so lustful?!'), even though it too is fallen.
It's about them, not you - but get support if you need it
Following on from the previous point, there is some unhelpful thinking around which lays the blame for homosexuality at the door of the child's parents. There are different versions of this, ranging from a 'nurture' emphasis (perhaps the child allegedly had a difficult relationship with their father, or a 'dominating' mother) or more of a 'nature' slant (supposedly the child was exposed to abnormal hormonal levels in the womb). In my case at least I have always had a good relationship with my Dad. My Mum is not dominating either (she wishes!). And besides, there are plenty of people who do have these relationships with their parents and who aren't gay.
But more importantly, the problem with this kind of speculation (and, again, it is speculation) is that it takes the focus off your child and onto you at a time when the child needs you to be focussed on them. You might feel guilty or upset, but your child is not the person to process that with. If you are struggling not to blame yourself, feel guilty, overreact and so on, it could be that you need some space and help to process your own emotions and response. That is totally understandable and not necessarily a sign of homophobia or failure to accept your child - it just means you need a bit of space and support. Do find trusted people to talk to, because the point of doing so is in order to be there more effectively for your child. For example, True Freedom Trust, which I have already mentioned, also provides support for parents and families.
At the same time, don't feel offended if you aren't the main person that they want to support them! My own parents are extremely supportive and accepting, but they are still not the main people with whom I want to discuss my sexuality in depth! Again, asking open questions, such as 'What would you like me to do to support you?' will give them permission to tell you what kind of support they actually want from you.
If your child is an adult
If your child is an adult and not living at home, then it is important to recognise that they are already making their own decisions and living their own life. Some people feel very uncomfortable with the idea, for example, of their adult children having a sexual partner to stay overnight in the same room. In my view, Christ's call to show hospitality and acceptance in such a situation outweighs the need to send a message about whether a sexual relationship is right or not. Church discipline is precisely that - church discipline. It can only be exercised by the church, not individuals. Of course, you may want to talk through your beliefs with your child (provided you also listen to them explain theirs). But that can be done through an adult to adult conversation in which each person is able to share their opinions and accept that the other person may not agree. (Remember: if you disagree with their point of view, then by definition they disagree with yours, so grace is needed on both sides!)
If your child is a child or young person
In this season of life, parents have a particular role in leading their children in a hopefully growing relationship with Christ, and helping them to discover that following him is good and truly fulfilling. For example, it would be fair and responsible for parent(s) to have a 'no boyfriends/girlfriends overnight in the same room' rule, as one of several healthy boundaries about work, alcohol, money and so on. Of course, all boundaries need to be in the context of a loving, accepting relationship in which the child is secure and knows that the rules are for their own good. It also helps if the family can talk about the good gift of sex and sexuality openly and honestly, according to the child's age. This enables them to understand not simply the boundaries, but the reasons for them. And it should go without saying that any family rule about same-sex boyfriends or girlfriends should also apply to opposite-sex ones!
Another way in which age is a factor is that labelling yourself as gay, bisexual and transgender from a young age may not be helpful. (This goes just the same for young people who are desperate to label themselves as 'straight' in order to fit in). This is not the same as the patronising 'everybody has same-sex crushes and you'll grow out of it' attitude, which I have just criticised. Most gay or same-sex attracted people have always been so - some becoming aware of this as they become sexually aware, but others being aware of it from a much younger age. So, as I have said, it is essential not to dismiss the young person's feelings, but to accept their deep-rooted reality - denial makes things worse, not better. But I also think that not having a particular label or identity may give the child a better chance of working out exactly what their particular mix of sexual attractions is, and to cope better if they subsequently experience any changes. Research increasingly recognises that sexuality is much more complex and/or fluid than is commonly acknowledged, as the excellent presentation from Dr Lisa Diamond here makes. Dr Diamond is a lesbian fully in favour of gay rights, so you may not agree with all of her views, but her research is extremely thorough and illuminating.
Love and accept them unconditionally
Yes, I know I already said this once! But this is the note I want to end on. Even a long post can only scratch the surface (and do check out the resources below, especially the book by Mark Yarhouse). But hopefully this post will at least boost your confidence that the main need and priority here as a parent is, as it always is, to love and accept your child unconditionally, and by doing so to show them that they are truly lovable, and loved by God.
Lisa Diamond lecture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2rTHDOuUBw
Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends (Bloomington: Bethany House, 2010) - especially chapters 5 and 6. (Google books link above, but you can buy the book here)
True Freedom Trust (http://www.truefreedomtrust.co.uk/) - also recommends a wide range of really helpful material.
Plus, have a look around the rest of the site and see the other books and materials which we recommend.