Why Accepting your LGBTQ Child Matters—And How to Start
Parents want their children to be happy, healthy, and safe. If your child comes out to you as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer), that may or may not be something you imagined or feel prepared for—but your acceptance really matters to their health and safety.
Why does family acceptance matter?
Dr. Caitlin Ryan, the director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, has conducted some of the first studies on how a family’s accepting and rejecting behaviors affect the well-being of LGBTQ children. Her research shows how families can learn to support these children—even if they believe that being gay or transgender is wrong.
One of Dr. Ryan’s studies showed that a family’s accepting or rejecting behaviors toward a young person’s LGBTQ status has significant implications for that child’s health and well-being. Young people with high levels of family rejection were:
- eight times more likely to report having attempted suicide
- nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression
- more than three times more likely to use drugs or have unprotected sex.1
In another study, she found that family acceptance helps protect adolescents against suicidal behavior, depression, and substance abuse. Young people with accepting families also reported higher self-esteem, social support, and overall health.2
How might a parent react when they learn their child is LGBTQ?
When a child comes out as LGBTQ, parents respond in a variety of ways. At one extreme, they may reject their child, even throw them out of the house. At the other end of the spectrum, they celebrate their child’s identity. Some parents accept their child right away by expressing their love and support but still need time to adjust. Most parents are somewhere closer to the middle to start but become more accepting over time.3
You may have questions and conflicting feelings; a lot of parents do at first. Depending on your faith or cultural beliefs, you may have a difficult time understanding this part of your child’s life. Many parents wonder:
- Did I do something wrong?
- Will I have grandkids?
- How will people treat my child?
- How do I tell people?
- How can my child be sure? Maybe it’s just a phase.4
It’s worth noting that you may be asking these questions out of love and concern, but they may feel to your child like rejection of a very important part of who they are. According to Dr. Ryan, you may need to mourn the loss of what you expected and wanted for your child. But your child can have a healthy future and, if they choose, a family of their own—and they’re actually more likely to achieve those goals when they feel accepted by their families. It will take time to learn what your child needs. You can find a way to maintain your values and keep your family together by starting to support your LGBTQ child, even when you have a hard time accepting this part of their identity.
Examples of more accepting behavior . . .
- asking them about their experience and how you can help them feel supported
- listening without interrupting or arguing
- telling them you love them and express affection
- learning together about issues LGBTQ youth face by joining an LGBTQ family support organization, such as PFLAG, Gender Spectrum, Gender Odyssey, or Strong Family Alliance
- standing up for your child when they are mistreated, even by other family members
- helping your child find an LGBTQ role model for your child among friends and family members or through PFLAG or other support groups
- talking to your religious leaders about helping your place of worship become more supportive of LGBTQ people, or find a more supportive place of worship at gaychurch.org, Q Christian Fellowship, Keshet, or Muslims for Progressive Values
- encouraging family and friends to check in with your child and show support
- challenging homophobic comments
- getting to know your child’s LGBTQ friends and romantic partner
- support your child’s gender expression
. . . and examples of rejecting behaviors to avoid, such as
- hitting or threatening your child
- shaming, name-calling, or not letting your child talk about their sexual orientation or gender identity
- excluding them from family events
- standing by silently if family/others bully them
- blaming or punishing your child for who they are
- restricting access to information or events about LGBTQ identity and topics
- cutting them off from supportive friends withholding affection
- pressuring your child to be more or less masculine or feminine
- punishing them by cutting off financial support
How can families learn to be more accepting?
Dr. Ryan explains that for many families, acceptance is a journey. “It isn’t all or nothing—you can find a balance between what you’re comfortable with now and what your child needs,” she says. “Some parents feel like they can never accept a child’s LGBTQ identity. We show them how to start by supporting their child, such as requiring that other family members treat their child with respect as they do other family members, or standing up for their child when others mistreat them because of who they are. This helps validate their child and supports well-being without forcing parents to move faster than they feel ready to.”
It’s also helpful to connect with other parents of LGBTQ children, to find support and a safe space to be honest about your feelings. PFLAG is one national organization of families and allies of LGBTQ individuals with support groups in every state.
How can parents move forward if they don’t feel good about their first reaction?
Even if you didn’t have the best initial reaction, you can still learn to support your LGBTQ child. Dr. Ryan suggests that “the most important thing you can do is to tell your child how much you love them. Your love reassures them that you are there for them and it creates space to talk honestly about each other’s feelings. This helps your family stay connected and grow together.”
We all make mistakes as we learn. It helps to remember that both you and your child are usually acting from a place of love, even if it doesn’t come across that way. Remember to give your child credit for doing something really difficult if they come out to you. Your child will come out many times in their life to different people. Sometimes they will be accepted, and unfortunately they may also face rejection. But starting on their path with your love and acceptance can help them develop a sense of self-worth and confidence to face future challenges—and to lead a healthier and more fulfilling life.