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What to Do When Your Child Comes Out

Posted 11/29/2016 by UHBlog

Do you need help talking with your child about their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression? We can help.

What to Do When Your Child Comes Out

Even though you may work with colleagues who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) or watch television programs that feature LGBT people, if your own child comes out to you, it can catch you off guard.

Being surprised is a common reaction, says psychologist Luis Felipe Amunategui, PhD.

“When a child first comes out to their parents, you may not have had an inkling about how your child was thinking or feeling,” Dr. Amuntegui says. “In fact, for many parents it can be startling. The degree to which it startles you can depend on how close to or distant from your values being LGBT is.”

Regardless of your own values and expectations, it’s crucial to watch your early reactions when speaking with your child. Dr. Amunategui says it’s especially important not to question their motives and reasoning or ask whether it's a transitory phase.

“Your child has been thinking about this for a while,” he says. “Your intention should be to establish a conversation that will be enduring. So communicate thoughtfully.”

To effectively handle these kinds of deep and personal conversations with your child, Dr. Amunategui suggests:

  • Being patient. Depending on where your child is on their journey, they may have suffered from a lot of doubts and, in some cases, self-harm. Also, Dr. Amunategui says, your child probably has a lot of fear about your reactions.
    “A main concern for my patients is, ‘Are my parents going to reject me’ and ‘Are they going to keep my siblings from interacting with me,’” he says.
  • Asking open-ended questions. For both of you, your understanding is unfolding, Dr. Amunategui says.
    “Your reaction and the kinds of questions you ask are helping your child to determine their next steps,” he says. “When you ask questions like, ‘Tell me more.’ and ‘How long have you be thinking this way,’ that keeps the conversation going.”
  • Taking a time-out if needed. Depending upon on how startled you are, you may need a moment to digest the news. However, if you need time to recover and regroup, don’t wait too long to resume the conversation.
    “If what your child is telling you startles you to the point that you ask for time before you talk again, it’s important to remember that for some reason, your child thought this was a good time to come out to you,” Dr. Amunategui says. “That has to be honored.”

Sometimes, parents who learn that their child is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender may view this news as offensive or an affront, especially if they have certain religious beliefs.

“I work with individual, thoughtful clergy from different denominations who teach people how to make room in their faith for all kinds of people,” he says. “I tell parents that their interpretation may not be the accepted dogma.”

Other times, parents become angry, which only drives a wedge in the parent-child relationship and shuts down the conversation.

For parents and family members who worry about the child’s safety and prejudices they may face, Dr. Amunategui refers families to local resources that help address common concerns, such as:

  • PFLAG, which works with LGBT people, as well as their parents, families, friends and allies
  • LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland

He also refers patients to specific private practices where there are staff with knowledge and experience in dealing with issues associated with a child's coming out from various perspectives.

“Knowing you’re not alone and understanding your options can help you cope with your own feelings,” he says.

Luis Felipe Amunategui, PhD is a child and adolescent psychologist and associate program director, Child Psychiatry at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Amunategui or any other doctor online.

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