Supporting Your LGBTQ+ Teen While They're Living Away From Home
Leaving home for the first time is a huge adjustment for both parents and teens. Beyond the typical emotional and financial investment of decisions like studying abroad or starting university, LGBTQ+ teens and their parents likely also have to worry about access to healthcare, safety, and acceptance in their new environment.
There are around 20 million college students in the U.S., and around 10 percent of those teens identify as LGBTQ+, and a much smaller percentage will study abroad, either in high school or college. As acceptance and support for the LGBTQ+ community grows (it's reported around 100 universities have LGTBQ+ student centers) and more study abroad organizations offer resources and guidance for this population, hate crimes and harassment are still far too common both at home and abroad.
Whether you're gripped with fear or already booking a plane ticket to Buenos Aires for your teen as you read this, experts share what to know and how to support your LGBTQ+ teen before and during their next chapter of study abroad or college.
Recognize Their Experience Will be Unique
Many young people embark on the journey of "finding themselves" once they leave home, and LGTBQ+ teens are no exception.
While some incoming freshmen could be concerned about getting into the top sorority, many LGBTQ+ teens worry about simply being accepted, "Especially when they've had to fight to be accepted within their [current] community," explains author and professor Courtney Conley, Ed.D, NCC, LCPC, ACS.
Until they find a sense of safety and belonging, they may have to negotiate how, when, and to whom to express their authentic selves, and may also have to confront stereotypes and misgendering by peers who come from different backgrounds.
"It's okay if they choose to express themselves differently out of safety," says Katie Fries, LCSW, RPT, owner of Whole Self Therapy. "It's important to recognize that that doesn't mean that they're not actually queer." That doesn't mean you can 'turn it off' or that it's just a phase. That might mean that is what they are having to do."
As they meet new people and are exposed to new ideas, they might even "try on" new and different expressions of gender and sexuality.
"Experimentation, if understood as a means to later come to a better concept of one's identity, is a good thing," says Anjel Arriaga, an Indiana University Bloomington student who came out as a cis gay man in high school, and later as a transgender woman in college.
"There needs to be a lot of patience reserved for people thinking about themselves without the guidance or suggestions of adults they've had all their lives," says Arriaga.
If you notice changes in your teen, before thinking "that's not them," remember that people grow and change all the time. For your teen, this is an indication that "They're in an environment where they're flourishing," says Dr. Conley, "That's what promotes happy, healthy adulthood."
Research Together and Decide What's Most Important
Watching your child leave home can be scary and more so when you know the world can be an unwelcoming atmosphere for many LGBTQ+ folks. Parents and teens researching together can feel more comfortable with the transition by knowing more about the environment they're stepping into.
You might look at universities and study abroad organizations that have LGBTQ+ student support departments or see how visible queer organizations on campus are. When studying abroad, parents and teens can research the laws and culture of other countries and read stories from other queer teens who have traveled there.
You can empower your teen to know what resources exist for them and the LGTBQ+ communities and allies to reach out to with any safety concerns.
While researching, your child may be drawn to a part of the U.S. or world that is notoriously hostile towards the LGTBQ+ community. Or perhaps they are an ocean-loving teen who wants to study in the best marine biology program in the country, but there's no LGBTQ+ student support on campus.
Have the conversation about what is most important for your child and what they'll need to thrive. Is it being within a large community of folks who express their gender or orientation like theirs, or is it to be connected with others who share their same die-hard passion?
Remember that there might be more than meets the eye to a new place, and there can still be opportunities for your child to find safety and security with a small community or individual relationship.
Own Your Own Fears
Worrying is normal, and an adjustment like leaving home might entail some loneliness, doubt, and homesickness—all things that hurt to witness from a distance.
Your fears as a parent are valid, explains Fries, but recognize that if your child is queer, they've already likely "experienced some ostracization based on their gender and sexuality and they likely have tools to manage that," she says. "Trust their resilience to navigate these challenges."
There's also a nuanced difference between feeling uncomfortable and feeling unsafe, and parents should acknowledge that. Fries says she works with parents to own their own anxieties and not project them onto their children.
She says it's more productive to frame concerns in terms of "I'm afraid for you and I have worries, but I trust you" rather than "Have you thought about this?" or "It's not safe there," which can cause a child to feel frustrated and question their own decisions about something they might be really excited about.
"It's tricky not to project our fears onto our kids and make our children's experience more difficult," says Helen Dempsey-Henofer MBA, MSW, LCSW. "We tend to be programmed to think of the worst-case scenarios."
Parents can practice the way they listen to their children and focus on interpreting meaning correctly. If they hear a child is struggling, you can hold space for your child's emotions, ask how you can support, and shift attention to things that are going well, rather than jumping to conclusions or surmising an experience isn't working out and they should come home.
Instead of voicing your fears directly to your teens, it may be helpful to share and connect with other parents of LGBTQ+ teens in a group like PFLAG and lean on your own counseling services.
Take Their Experience as It Is—All of It
Parents and teens have to get used to support looking different thousands of miles away.
Parents—who are hopefully a safe space for teens at home—can continue to be whether children move to Nebraska or New Zealand. Your teen may thrive with tons of new friends or feel isolated and call you daily for support. However they work through their adjustment, listen without judgment, and empower them to find solutions.
Leaving home can be intimidating, but it can also be thrilling. Teens are on the cusp of new relationships and life experiences, some that will undoubtedly take emotional tolls and require your love and patience.
Hold with them the hope that they have wonderful and messy experiences ahead of them—and you'll be there for all of it.