Dear Dr. Wes & Kendra: I heard your radio show last year about how different things are for gay teens now, and I mostly agree, but some of us have older more traditional parents, or live in a small town. I think it's harder for us. I'm 16 and I want to be open with my family about being a lesbian, and it's just not that easy. What's the best way to go about this?
Kendra: Although there remain some obstacles, recognizing that they exist is the first step in tackling them. Whether you live in a small conservative town or liberal big city, religious or moral issues are likely. Consider these points when making a plan that suits you best:
1. Time it right. There’s no time like the present, but when having such an important discussion, set aside time to talk it out. You may have a lot to say and they may have a lot of questions.
2. Safety first. Most teens are still dependent on family, so you have to think about the consequences of coming out. With very anti-gay parents, you could end up kicked out of your home and into a bad or even dangerous situation. Enlist someone like a supportive family friend, therapist or clergyperson who can provide a third-party point of view.
3. Come right out. Although you may feel timid, it’s important not to beat around the bush. Show your family you are confident in your identity. If they see you embrace it, they may be more likely to jump on board.
4. Reintroduce yourself. Remind your family that your sexuality does not define you; it’s just another part of you. Your family loves you, and even if they do not accept you coming out at first, that should not change.
5. Be willing to wait for acceptance. As hard as it may be for you, some parents view having a gay daughter or son with uneasiness or even trepidation. If your parents seem willing, suggest they become involved in the local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) for further support.
Some parents can take months or even years to entirely assimilate to the “new you.” No matter what, it’s important to accept yourself even when no one else does.
Wes: Kendra’s suggestions are so good that I’ll move on and offer a few tips for parents who are increasingly finding themselves in this situation.
1. Think ahead. For some parents, it’s no surprise when a son or daughter makes the big announcement. Others feel they’ve been transported into an alternate dimension. In 2014, parents should foresee this possibility as they would any other critical disclosure. Most parents have at least considered what they’d say if a teen comes home announcing an unplanned pregnancy or young engagement.
2. Take a deep breath. The less you say, the less you have to take back. Thank your child for being courageous enough to share, tell him or her that you’d like some time to think and form a response. While this may disappoint a teen that was hoping for a joyful hug, it’s better than saying something you’ll regret. When you’re in shock, the list of unfortunate responses is pretty long.
3. Avoid condescension. Teenagers hate to be told they’re “just going through a phase,” even if they are. A core part of adolescence is organizing your sexuality, so same-sex experimentation is (and always has been) pretty normal. But in this context that response is perceived as degrading and dismissive. A question as simple as “Are you sure?” can trigger the sense that the teen’s courageous sharing isn’t being taken seriously.
4. Get help. I’ll second Kendra’s motion for reaching out. I do a lot of this work now, and it always goes better when young people come to therapy before they come out. That lets them tailor the disclosure to their unique situations and draw on the therapist’s experience. Likewise, for parents who feel they’re on shaky ground after this disclosure, a call to a professional who specializes in this area of practice is worthwhile.
— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his practice Family Psychological Services at dr-wes.com. Kendra Schwartz is a Lawrence High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.