You are already doing the work; simply by taking the time to consider how to sensitively approach coming out to your child brings intentionality to the conversation that will promote a deeper connection. Children generally do want to know the truth about their parents’ sexual orientation, and usually, they have some idea before you even tell them! However, just because they want to know doesn’t mean that they are always thrilled about the situation, especially initially. It can signify a big change in the family, especially when accompanied by all of the transitions that come with a divorce or break-up. These tips can also be helpful even if you were already ‘out’ when your child was born.
Note: This article primarily focuses on a parent/caregiver coming out to their child(ren) about their sexual orientation and discusses questions and challenges that come up in that coming-out process. Coming out is not a one-time thing or restricted to sexual orientation, and this information may apply in different ways throughout a parent/caregiver and their child’s life. For more information on gender identity and supporting People with Trans Parents (PTP) please review our 1st edition PTP guide.
Here are some tips to keep in mind that might help when coming out to your child(ren):
- It’s never too early to come out to your child. Most children understand love and honesty. What they might not understand is deception or hiding. Also, it’s never too late to come out to your child, even if they are an adult. There are people in their forties whose parents are just now coming out to them. A lot of mysteries are being solved and missing puzzle pieces fall into place for these families. Often, knowing the truth will eventually be a relief for children of all ages.
- Tell your child/ren in a private space where the conversation can’t be overheard and will be completely confidential. Telling them at your regular Saturday night dinner at your favorite restaurant will be overwhelming and may not provide the space they need to process the information emotionally.
- Make sure you tell them when there will be plenty of time for the conversation to continue if it needs to or pause for processing. If they are staying with you for the weekend, for example, talk with them on Saturday morning instead of waiting until the drive back to their other home on Sunday night.
- If you are agonizing over exactly what to say, try writing it down first or practicing with a friend.
- Children’s responses are going to vary. Some may need some time and space to process the information on their own. Some might have a million questions. Others may barely react at all. No matter how your child responds to your coming out, honor the process that they need to go through for themselves.
- Listen and ask your child what they already know and feel about LGBTQ+ people, both as a starting point for them to discuss sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as regarding suspicions they may have had about you.
- Don’t think that coming out to your child means it’s time to have ‘the big sex talk’. Explain your sexuality in age-appropriate ways that they can understand. Talk about having feelings of love, care, and concern, along with attraction, for the type of people you are drawn to. If you are involved with someone and feel comfortable sharing this information, it can make the conversation less abstract for your child, especially if they might already know the other person.
- Think of this as a lifelong conversation, not a one-time deal. Your child’s thoughts, feelings, and questions will continue and might change over time. This month they might not care, next month they might be mortified, and next year they may have lots of questions. Keep the conversation alive by planning time to talk about it as a family or one on one. Don’t overload or overwhelm your child by talking about it non-stop until you feel content. In the beginning, look to them and ask them to help you plan special times, places, or occasions that feel safe and affirming to talk about your family’s coming out process. This can be a mutually agreed-upon place to discuss the topic such as a special nature walk, porch swing, or special drive to a scenic spot or parking lot. If you’re able to, try to make the discussion process a positive experience that ends with an activity you both enjoy such as eating ice cream or enjoying a beloved movie or tv show. Remember, you are not the only one who has to come out now. Your child will also have to choose when and how they come out about their family throughout their life. Now that you are all in it together, set up times to talk that work for all of you, not just when one person wants to talk about it. Family or individual counseling can also be very helpful if your child does not want to talk to you directly or without a mediator.
- Let them know that no matter what, you love them. One of the main things children worry about is that you will no longer share the common interests that you used to, or that you will somehow be different than you used to be. At the time of coming out, some parents do go through what is fondly referred to as a ‘second adolescence’. Let your child know that you are happy and are enjoying a new aspect of your life, but that no matter what, they are your number one priority. Then prove it to them by being consistent, attentive, and communicative.
- Help break down stereotypes of gay people for them. If your child already knows other gay people, draw comparisons between you and them. If they don’t, tell them things that may seem obvious to you, like the fact that ‘not all gay men are hairdressers’; give examples of famous LGBTQ+ people who they can look up to. They may be concerned that your whole personality is going to change now that you are gay; reassure them that you are still you – being gay is simply one more thing about you.
- Give them options for other supportive adults to talk with. Sometimes it’s easier for children to express some of their feelings with another adult because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. If one of your parents, siblings, or friends is being especially supportive, or there is another adult that you trust, arrange for them to spend time with your child(ren) to provide a sounding board.
- Your child may also identify as LGBTQ+. They may be straight. Either way, it’s not a judgment on your parenting. Nor are they doomed to a life of loneliness and desperation and homophobia (if they are LGBTQ+). Be as supportive of your child’s orientation and gender identity as you wish your parent(s) were of yours.
- Respect your child’s wishes about how, when, and who they come out to about you. Let them tell their friends, peers, and others at their own pace and in their own time. Recognize that now they too have the joy and burden of coming out.
- Help youth identify allies in their friend group and the local community. Your child is now part of a new community. Help them find others who can support them in this new journey and identity.
- Discuss with them in age-appropriate ways what to do when faced with people who are not accepting or supportive of your family or LGBTQ+ people. This will help everyone in your family in the long run and help your child learn how and when to tell your family story in ways that feel safe and affirming to them.
Most importantly, connect them with other children and mentors who have one or more LGBTQ+ parent/caregiver. Either locally, nationally, or virtually, help you child connect with other children their age and mentors who have one or more caregiver who identifies as LGBTQ+. This representation, mentorship, and visibility can be powerful, not just initially as they adjust to the new reality, but throughout their lives. Go to events with your local LGBTQ+ family group if there is one, buy books for them about gay families, have them join online groups or become members of other local groups so your family can connect to other families in your area. Let them know they are part of a community that cares and understands. They are not alone. Millions of other children have experienced what they are now going through, and there are ways that they can connect to this caring community of peers.
This resource guide was prepared by COLAGE, a program of Family Equality.
COLAGE unites people with one or more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and/or asexual parent/caregivers into a network of peers and supports them as they nurture and empower each other to be skilled, self-confident, and just leaders in our collective communities.
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