8 tips to support your LGBTQ+ teen
Teenagers tend to have a lot on their minds, between school, friends, social dynamics, family, new feelings and simply learning about their own identity. For some, that may include their sexual orientation or gender identity — they may not be sure how much to tell you (or how you’ll react) or how they even feel about it themselves.
You’ve likely heard the term “LGBTQ+,” which is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning. The plus sign refers to additional identities, such as asexual, pansexual and intersex. These terms are used to describe a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. If your teen identifies as LGBTQ+, there may be a time when they come to you to share this part of themselves.
Many teens have mixed feelings when they begin to explore identifying in a new way. They may be overwhelmed by these feelings. Whether you’re prepared for it or not, your first reactions matter. When your child discloses their identity to you, it is important to respond with support and affirmation.
“Your child will always remember that first conversation with you, and they will share it with others as part of their life story. It’s a milestone,” says Caitlin Ryan, Ph.D., director of the Family Acceptance Project at the Marian Wright Edelman Institute at San Francisco State University.
According to research at the Family Acceptance Project, teens with families who accept their LGBTQ+ identity experience better overall health and well-being, less risk of depression and substance abuse, higher self-esteem and stronger family relationships, Ryan explains.
So, whether it’s your first conversation with your teen — or one of many — here are some ways to help show your love and support.
Just be there
Listen without interruption, recommends Kathryn Lowe, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician and member of the executive committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on LGBT Health and Wellness. This expresses your desire and curiosity to learn more about them, which is the first step in showing your acceptance of who they are, she adds.
Say thank you
It can be tough to get any information out of your teen, let alone about a deep and delicate topic like LGBTQ+ identity. And it can go a long way to thank your teen for sharing this information with you. “Acknowledging their bravery is another means of acceptance,” Dr. Lowe says.
If you’re struggling with your teen’s LGBTQ+ identity, you can still show support without accepting an identity that may go against your beliefs, advises Ryan. The best thing you can do at this time is to say something like, “I love you and I’ll be there for you even if I don’t understand right now. We’ll learn about this together.” “That buys time for parents to process their own feelings but provides much-needed assurance for their child that you will still love and support them,” Ryan says.
Affirm what they say
Even if you’re coming from a positive place, saying something such as “it’s just a phase” or questioning their identity is harmful. “It’s a very scary, vulnerable moment for a youth to come out to their loved ones. This type of reaction can send a message that a parent doesn’t think their child really knows their own feelings or can’t trust their own instincts. That’s a negative message for a teen to internalize,” Dr. Lowe says. It can create shame, which in turn may cause them to bottle up their own feelings and distance themselves from you.
Read about it
You may not know all the LGBTQ+ vocabulary, but don’t ask your child to define all the terms for you. Take matters into your own hands and do some research. To understand what a word or phrase means, check out PFLAG’s LGBTQ+ Glossary.1 For information about gender identity, Dr. Lowe recommends the organization Gender Spectrum. If you fumble one of the words when you and your teen are chatting? It’s okay. You’re learning, and it may take some time to get it right.
Look for little (and not so little) ways to keep showing support
Acceptance takes many forms, and it includes being there for your child in a positive way beyond that initial “coming out” talk. The Family Acceptance Project has identified more than 50 specific behaviors that parents can use to show acceptance and support for their LGBTQ+ children. For example, it could include welcoming your teen’s LGBTQ+ friends at family events or using their new name and pronouns, says Ryan.
Repair, if needed
If you said the wrong thing, it’s okay — you’re human. What’s important is that you repair and open the lines of communication with your teen. Dr. Lowe recommends having a follow-up conversation with your child. Acknowledge what you said and the impact. Then promise to try to do better. It’s even more impactful if you can tell your teen that they’re free to tell you if you say things that hurt them. For example, you can say to your child: “In the future, I might make a mistake and use your old pronouns. Please correct me when I do.”
Seek out additional resources
“Unfortunately, there’s a profound amount of disinformation about sexual orientation and gender identity,” says Ryan. For parents, learning accurate information helps you to become an advocate for your child. The Family Acceptance Project websites offer supportive resources that are culturally relevant.2,3
PFLAG also provides resources for individuals and families — including people of color, people of faith and more.4 If you’re struggling with your teen’s coming out, it may help to find a local support group for families and loved ones. Or reach out to a therapist on your own to help with processing your feelings.
And consider talking to your child’s pediatrician, who can be a resource for you. Dr. Lowe points out that parents can make appointments to speak with the pediatrician on their own. You can also ask your teen if they’d like to see their pediatrician, who can help provide education on sexuality and gender diversity.
Bottom line, says Dr. Lowe: “I encourage parents to value and love their children for who they are today.”