Dear Dr. Wes & Kelly: My husband and I disagree over how to respond to our teenage daughter's disclosure that she is gay. I think we should be supportive no matter what, and he believes that something is wrong with her and she needs help. Both of us don't like this, but I'm trying to be realistic about it. This is causing problems for our marriage and our relationship with our daughter.
Wes: This issue is far too complex to be confined in an 800-word column, involving at minimum psychological, religious, sociological and even genetic issues.
All I can give is my opinion from a family psychological perspective. It's been many years since the American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations considered homosexuality "something wrong" with a person. Some professionals may disagree, but from a diagnostic standpoint your husband is incorrect. Your daughter may well need help to think through and understand the implications of her sexual orientation - especially given your family's reaction. However, that doesn't make her much different from most teens who are in a process of exploring who they are as sexual beings.
I don't want to start a fight with either the gay or straight community, but I would also remind you that part of that self-exploration is sexual orientation. We've long considered same-sex attraction an expectable part of maturation. Only in the last 20 to 40 years has it begun to take on a specific identity - that one is either straight or gay and that one would be certain about this by the time they are, say 16. This may or may not be true depending upon the individual, and thus I would encourage kids and parents not to make any early or rash judgments on these matters. That's sort of the opposite of exploration.
I've known gay adults who report they were quite certain of their orientation at age 12. Others once considered themselves gay or bisexual as late teens and then found they were not as they grew older. I believe them all. You didn't share her age in your note, but the younger your daughter is, the more she's still trying to find the answers. That doesn't mean that if you act now you can still "fix" this "problem." It means that you might consider giving her some room to breath on this issue rather than turning it into a major source of drama - which will undoubtedly push her away. In short, when it comes to sexuality, she's going to be who she is and will figure that out in her own time and hopefully with your loving support.
Over the course of her life, there will be a fair number of things you and your daughter disagree on. Each time you're in conflict you withdraw some influence credits from the bank, so pick your battles wisely. If you oppose your child's choice of partners because they are gay or of a different race or religion, you are going to quickly spend almost all your capital on something you can't really influence. Better to focus on the quality of the dating partner - is she good to your daughter, does she have goals and aspirations, does she share your values? These form much smaller targets and leave you with some real possibilities to influence how your daughter chooses to live her life.
Finally, be very cautious in how you and your husband react. A lot of emotion will bring on a lot more emotion, when in fact cooler heads are required. There is a higher incidence of self-harm and running away among gay teenagers. That's the last thing you want for your child. I do suggest you find a good therapist so your family can wrestle with these issues in as productive a way as possible.
Kelly: Raising a teen can be difficult enough, but raising one who strays from what you believe is morally right imposes many obstacles. The teenage years are an emotional roller coaster ride - a time of human development, self-discovery and sexual exploration.
Homosexuality has been around for centuries. There are many gays that have known from a very young age that they were homosexual. Some explore this sexuality once they are older. Others are afraid and confused of coming out, and closet their sexuality until they feel they are in a safe environment to do so.
You may not agree with your daughter's sexuality. However, she is still the same child you have grown to love and care for. The fact that she confided in you shows how she is opening up and trusts you. This is a difficult and confusing time for her. She is going to need both you and your husband to be there along the way for emotional support.
If your daughter has decided to be openly gay, don't create a barrier and shut her out of your lives. Although you don't agree with it, you do have to respect it. If you attempt to shelter her decisions, your relationship with her may deteriorate. You may notice her growing adrift or even angered by any negative reactions you express to her orientation.
Instead, give your daughter comfort. Tell her that you may not agree with her decisions, but you will love her no matter what. Show her unconditional love. Doing so will give her comfort and security. In the end, I see two options - you may either choose to lose a daughter who may grow to resent you, or you may create a strong everlasting, loving relationship.
Next week: A reader takes issue with a previous comment about preacher's kids.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.