“When [my son] came out, he showed me how he had really felt like a boy inside and couldn’t force himself anymore to be a girl,” says Mary Moss, mother of a 17-year-old transgender son. “It was really scary for a moment because he didn’t want to live if he couldn’t be a boy. There was just nothing for so long, no resources, my family didn’t understand, they thought I was crazy. I didn’t know what to do. Finally I said no, I’m going to help him.”
Listening to your kids is exactly where Moss recommends parents start in the process of supporting their LGBTQ child.
“What I’ve really learned is that I have a lot of respect for kids,” Moss says. “I feel like parents and adults don’t really listen to kids sometimes. Listen to them. Ask your kids what would help them.”
Director of the Children, Youth and Families Program at the Human Rights Campaign Ellen Kahn says cultivating an accepting and loving environment for LGBTQ kids starts early. Parents of young children can give the perception that being straight is “right” or “normal,” which can be difficult for children who may not identify as such.
“We’ll say to 7-year-olds, out of habit, ‘oh, you’re a ladies man, do you have a girlfriend?’…things that assume that this child is going to be straight,” Kahn said. “The child then absorbs these messages and knows this is the expectation and ‘norm’.”
Kahn also recommends that parents think about the family culture from a young age. Parents who highlight differences with empathy and understanding are showing their children to respect others. That can make a big difference in whether or not a child feels comfortable coming to their parents to talk.
“Young people often get the message at home that [coming out] would not be a safe conversation to bring up,” Kahn says. “And they gauge that based on what they hear family saying.”
According to research from the Family Acceptance Project, “family acceptance promotes well-being and helps protect LGBT young people against risk. And family rejection has a serious impact on a gay or transgender young person’s risk for health and mental health problems.”
The 2017 HRC report found that 38% of LGBTQ teens were out to their parents. When asked to describe the most important problem facing their lives right now, LGBT youth identified the number one issue to be non-accepting families.
This has very real consequences, Kahn explains. According to the 2012 Williams Institute Homeless Youth Survey, 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. The majority ran away because of family rejection of sexual orientation or gender. The National Alliance on Mental Illness found that LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts, or engage in self-harm than their straight counterparts.
“Try to make sure that what you say is supportive and kind and thoughtful,” Kahn says. “It may be your gut instinct to react a certain way, but to say that out loud is to splinter the trust and can do irreparable damage to the child’s sense of safety and well-being and unconditional love.”
Psychologist and founder of Team Finch Consultants Jennifer Bryan helps pre-K through 12th grade schools address gender and sexuality. She also provides trainings for parents.
“Parents are nervous about when they’re supposed to address these issues. They think they should wait until a certain age and have the talk,” Bryan says. “Parents and teachers have, for a long time, shied away from these conversations. They need to talk about these parts of who their kids are matter-of-factly from the beginning. For a lot of parents, they have to get past how they were brought up, give up their own hang-ups and fears that this is not appropriate. Talk honestly. Talk early.”