5 Ways You Can Support Your Child Who Is Exploring Their Gender or Sexual Identity
For children exploring their gender identity and sexuality, the support that they get at home from their parents or guardians plays a huge role. While you may want to do what's best for your child, you may feel unprepared to adequately support your children who are gender non-conforming or are exploring their sexuality.
According to Regine Muradian, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, "Parents are key in helping children process their feelings around their sexual identity and gender identity. When kids feel parental support, they feel safe opening up and sharing about their feelings. With parental and community support there are many positive outcomes to their overall mental health."
The following suggestions are ways you can support your questioning or newly out child.
1. Believe Your Children and Provide Judgement-Free Space
When your children come out to you, either about their gender identity or sexuality, it can be a big step for them. One that's filled with fear, anxiety about your reaction, and hope that you will love them no matter what you are about to say. It is essential for you to believe your child, and make this known to them.
It is easy to assume cliches or go into a space of denial by saying things like "it's just a phase" or "they're confused," especially if your child is young. However, saying these words can irreparably damage your relationship with them. If these are your first thoughts, you will need to work through this in your own time, but your child needs to see that you believe in them. Anjali*, 23, who identifies as queer, says, "I wish my mother had been more validating of my anxieties. I wish she'd take me at my word when it comes to my sexuality instead of second-guessing it."
Research by the Family Acceptance Project has also found that "family acceptance promotes well-being and helps protect LGBT young people against risk." Jennifer Grosshandler, co-founder of the GenderCool Project, and mother to a 15-year-old transgender teenager confirms the importance of listening to your child. "Chazzie absolutely knew who she was from an early age," says Grosshandler. "Transgender children often feel this clear internal sense of self just like every other person." When people ask her how a child could possibly be sure of it, or have the life experiences to know, she says, "I often ask a question in return … "Well, how did you know you were a boy or a girl? What was that like?" Children know who they are. Believe them and watch them thrive."
Dr. Muradian suggests asking open-ended questions: "'Tell me more about how you feel?' 'What does this mean to you?' and 'Let's keep this conversation open,' allow the child to feel safe and able to share and express emotions in a non-judgmental space.
2. Create an Open, Respectful Environment Within The Home
Encouraging your child to express themself and be comfortable in their own skin is of utmost importance. You can do this by ensuring that you do not police their gender or expression through stereotypes and a heteronormative lens. Let your child play with all types of age-appropriate toys and let them dress and express themselves in any way they like. When we don't make gender or sexuality a big deal and just go with their flow, we can give children the room to explore and not compulsively try to fit themselves into one neat box.
"My husband and I always tried to make sure Alpha knew that there are not "boy things" or "girl things"—boys can play with dolls, girls can play with cars, colors are for everyone, etc.," says Sora B.*, a mother to a genderqueer 9-year-old. "As Alpha grew, she didn't gravitate towards things based on gender; she wore what she liked and played with what she enjoyed."
Doing this can help your child feel comfortable when they come to you with questions or thoughts about their identity. Sora believes that this environment played a role in her child coming to talk to her immediately after figuring out that she may be genderqueer.
For Emery*, a 24-year-old queer asexual, nonbinary person, their home environment played a big role in their sense of self. "[My parents] were against same-gender relationships up until the last seven years, so that impacted my self-perception as a queer youth," Emery says. "I wasn't in denial about it, though, more like I felt like I wouldn't be able to act on my queer desires if I wanted to."
3. Introduce Them To Diverse Media With Good Representation
"We actively seek out inclusive media for LGBTQ identities, main character gender [representation], and racial diversity," says Sora. "We want to make sure our kids know that 'straight white boy' doesn't automatically mean 'most important.'" It was actually a book with a gender-fluid character that she credits for her child finding the language to express herself. "Media can definitely help you find the vocabulary to describe your fundamental truths," says Sora.
Seeing yourself represented on screen or in a good book is comforting for adults and children. However, for children, it has the added advantage of giving them exposure and vocabulary to address issues of gender and sexuality. Simple things like buying them books that have gender-nonconforming characters can be a huge step in normalizing different identities.
4. Encourage Them To Make Friends in the LGBTQ+ Community
Sometimes, no matter how supportive your child's friends are, they may not "get" it—they can never fully understand what it means to be queer if they don't hold the same identity. Even then, everyone's experience is different. Your child may miss out on the experience of relating to other kids and being able to feel the comfort of thinking this person is like me if they are not around other queer youth.
To encourage and aid the process of making friends in the LGBTQ+ community, you can enroll them for LGBTQ+ -specific camps, support groups that encourage playtime, or setting up playdates with other queer children in the neighborhood or school. But talk to them about what feels right for them. Safe online spaces are valuable for queer youth to find representation and friendship too. TrevorSpace, an app created by the team behind The Trevor Project, helps connect LGBTQ+ youth ages 13 to 24 who are seeking a community to identify with.
For Astrid*, whose 9-year-old child is nonbinary, helping them meet people like them was very important. "I would attend a parent's support group, and meanwhile, all the kids would get to socialize and make friends with each other," Astrid says. "I also enrolled them in a summer camp for LGBTQ kids. The first day I picked them up after camp, they were beaming!"
5. Encourage Therapy and Support Groups, for You and Your Child
When dealing with something as big as naming or settling into their identity, a child can get overwhelmed. It may be easy for your child to get overwhelmed. Not feeling "normal" or not fitting in and relating to your friends can be difficult. Your child may also be facing bullying or exclusion in school and from peers. These are all things to keep an eye out for and address. Support groups or therapists are great resources, and there's no harm in getting external help for your child.
It's okay to not always know the best ways to support your child and you may be anxious about showing up for your child in ways that they need. Support groups have you covered there too. A number of parent support groups allow you to get advice from other parents and may help you expand your and your child's LGBTQ+ friend circle.
The Bottom Line
It's important to remember that each child is different. If you are listening close enough, it is likely that your child will express what they need. The most important part is to show up and be there for your child, and follow their lead.
*Names have been changed and last names withheld for privacy.