How to Support Your LGBTQ+ Kid When He, She or They Come Out

Even if it's unexpected, parents need to be the emotional safe harbor.

how be supportive when your lgbtq kid comes out, even if you were shocked by the news
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Even though there's more visibility than ever for the LGBTQ+ community, coming out can still be difficult. If you're a parent of someone who recently came out, here's what you should know and how you can offer your support.

The average age of coming out gets younger each generation, but the LGBTQ+ community still experiences discrimination.

Research suggests that children and young adults are coming out at younger ages and in greater numbers than earlier generations. According to a 2013 Pew Research Study, the median age LGBTQ+ people reported coming out to others is 20 years old. Individuals who are transgender (those whose gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth) and non-binary (those whose gender identity isn’t exclusively male or female) reported coming out at an average of 18.5 years old, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Our culture is opening up a little bit in certain areas so children feel safer coming out earlier,” says Linda K. Reeves, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) Certified Gender Specialist. Reeves also co-founded a California chapter of PFLAG (formerly known as, “Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays”), an organization with 200,000 members nationwide.

However, the media still portrays some LGBTQ+ identities in a problematic way, LGBTQ+ people are still stigmatized and discriminated against — and there are still a lot of places and ways in which LGBTQ+ rights are not equal. According to the Human Rights Watch, “Many federal laws do not contain express protections for LGBTQ+ people, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination in housing, health care and other domains.”

And such discrimination has real consequences for their mental health, according to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention efforts for LGBTQ+ youth. In its 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ+ Youth Mental Health — the largest study of its kind — 68% of the 40,000 LGBTQ+ youth aged 13 to 24 surveyed reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder in the previous two weeks, including more than three in four transgender and non-binary youth. The same study found that one in three LGBTQ+ youth reported that they had been physically threatened or harmed during their lifetime because of their identity.

Coming out is an ongoing process.

It’s important to realize that your child coming out is not a one-and-done conversation but will likely involve a series of talks over the coming months, and even years, as they develop and grow. “The coming out process takes time,” says Reeves, whose 26-year-old son came out when he was in the seventh grade.

And while there aren’t hard and fast rules or exact stages within the process of coming out, many LGBTQ+ folks report that, initially, the process of coming out begins with the feeling that their sexual orientation (who they are attracted to) or gender identity (what gender they identify with) does not match up with what their culture may be telling them it should be, or with the sex they were assigned at birth. This can be followed by research, choosing to identify privately or publicly as LGBTQ+ and potentially having conversations with friends and family.

For gender non-binary or transgender individuals, this may include or be followed by outward-facing changes, such as cutting their hair, dressing differently or changing their pronouns. Again, the coming out process and stages are unique to each individual and may occur in a different progression.

Remember: LGBTQ+ people come out their whole life, adds Kathy Godwin, PFLAG National Board President. “Every time they move, take a new job or meet someone new,” she says, “they are evaluating if this is a safe place or person.”

When a child comes out, the best thing to do is remind them that your love is unconditional.

When my daughter came out, I didn’t know anything about the process. I sought to learn more about being LGBTQ+ by doing research and listening to what my own children and what experts in the field have to say.

The young people I spoke to who had come out all agreed that the most important jobs of a parent of a LGBTQ+ child are to 1) love that child unconditionally and 2) educate yourself. “The bottom line when a child comes out to a parent,” says Sarah Kaidanow, 28, who came out at 25, “is to clearly communicate that you still love them, no matter what.” That initial coming out conversation is one that your child will likely remember for the rest of their life, she adds. “Naturally you look to your parents’ reactions to see how other people’s reactions would be. The way it feels is: If they can’t accept you, how can you accept yourself?”

Indeed, while research has found that identifying as LGBTQ+ puts an individual at greater risk for mental health issues, particularly suicide, family support can help lower that possibility. According to the Trevor Project study, 40% of LGBTQ+ respondents had seriously considered suicide in the past year with more than half of transgender and non-binary youth considering it. However, the study did conclude that parental support and affirming families helped lessen the chance of suicide among LGBTQ+ youth. While 18% of respondents with lower levels of family support reported attempting suicide in the previous 12 months, only 7% of those reporting high levels of family support did so.

The reactions of a LGBTQ+ youth’s parents to their coming out matters. So what would the ideal response of a parent to a child when they come out look like? Kaidanow suggests something along the lines of: “Thank you for telling me. I love you so much and I’m so glad you’ve discovered this about yourself. Is there anything else you want to tell me?”

If you're unsure how to proceed, be honest, says Kaidanow, and say something like, “I don’t want to say anything wrong. Can you give me some time to collect my thoughts?” The ideal response offered by Jumel Howard, 25, who came out as gay at 13, goes a step further: “No matter what, you are still my child and I am always going to love you. Nothing has changed except that I am going to fight even harder so that you can be your best self in this world.”

Keep these helpful suggestions for supporting your kids when they come out in mind:

You can never go wrong by saying, “I love you and accept you always,” to your kid.“Give them a hug," Godwin says. "That gives your child a feeling of safety and encourages them to want to continue talking to you."

Thank your child for sharing this information with you. Let them know you’re happy they told you, that you are always there to support them and that you love all parts of them, suggests Reeves.

Validate their truth. “Gender and sexuality are like fingerprints,” Reeves says. “Acknowledge and affirm their unique identity and get on board quickly with any name or pronoun changes.” If family members don’t use your child’s chosen name or pronouns, advises Jumel Howard, “Don’t turn a blind eye. Stand up to them for your child.” According to the Trevor Project study, transgender and non-binary youth who reported having their pronoun choice respected by all or most of the people in their life attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not.

Just listen. “Try not to fall into fear or future trip about potential problems down the road — worrying if they’ll be in danger or victimized," Reeves says. “Just be there and listen.”

Be curious and upfront about what you don’t know. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I don't know very much about this now but I am going to learn,” Godwin says. “But,” Kaidanow cautions, “it’s not your kid’s responsibility to hold your hand through the process.” As a parent, you have resources. Talk to other parents, a friend or a support group. “The Internet exists,” she adds, “and there are amazing forums, YouTube channels and websites on it. There are no excuses for ‘I don’t get it.’”

Educate yourself to be your child’s ally. Don’t know where to begin? Jumel Howard recommends starting with a local LGBTQ+ community center. To find one near you, go to the Center Link website at lgbtcenters.org. PFLAG has groups all over the country, he adds, with virtual options during the pandemic. Consider getting involved in and making a donation to GLSEN (an educational organization working to end discrimination and promote inclusion for LBTQ+ students in K-12), GLAAD (an LGBTQ+ media advocacy formerly known as the “Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation”) or the Human Rights Campaign (the largest LGBTQ+ advocacy and political lobbying organization in the country). For more resources, see below.

Tell them that you’ve got their back and find ways to support them proactively. Ask what they need and what you can do to help. Check to see if they're comfortable coming out to your spouse or their siblings, grandparents, school, etc. “This doesn’t have to be the child’s job — you can handle it if they wish,” Reeves says. Howard also recommends checking in with your local school board to see what, if any, policies they follow to make the school experience equitable and inclusive for LGBTQ+ children, teachers and others. If policies are not supportive of or don’t protect, for example, a child’s right to use their chosen name, pronouns or bathroom, work to change them.

Attend to your own emotional needs so you can be your child’s ally. Taking care of yourself will help you show up for and support your child. If you need to, talk to a therapist. “You don’t want to weigh down the child with your own issues,” Reeves says.

Ask about your child’s own experience. Be open to learning more about their experience — Is your child in a relationship? Do they have a crush? “If there’s something you want to know, ask your child,” Howard says. “If they’re ready to talk about it, they will. And if they are not, give them time and don’t pester them to answer,” he adds. “Letting them know you are there to talk about anything if and when they want to is a large comfort just in itself.”

Some things to avoid doing or saying:

Don't make it about you — it should be about your child first and foremost, Kaidanow says. Refrain from asking yourself “Why is my child making my life so difficult?” This isn’t about you; it’s about your child, Reeves says. “Your child isn’t doing this to make your life more challenging,” she adds. “They are just seeking to express their authentic identity.” Make them feel welcome at home, Howard adds. The Trevor Project study found that 29% of LGBTQ+ youth have experienced homelessness, been kicked out or run away. Homelessness among adolescents has also been linked to higher rates of suicide.

Don't feel hurt or left out that your child kept this to themselves for a while before sharing it with you. They need time to come out to themselves first before they can share this information with anyone else.

Don’t comment if they start dressing differently, try on a new identity or bring home a new friend, Kaidanow says. “Unless it’s dangerous or unhealthy, withhold comments and just accept them as hard as you can," she continues. "Don’t say ‘You’ve changed” or ‘You’re different’— it probably won’t be taken in a positive way. You don't get to control the narrative anymore unless they are doing something that puts them in harm’s way — so step back and let them have their experiences.”

Above all, remember that your child is still the child that you love, respect and, yes, sometimes find a pain in the neck. You just have another piece of information about them that can help you connect better in the long run.

Here Are Some LQBTQ+ Resources to Bookmark

Want to get more involved in the LGBTQ+ community? Check out the following organizations in addition to those mentioned in the article above.

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