What To Do When Your Child 'Comes Out'
Pam Bowers was devastated when her 21-year-old daughter told her she was gay.
"I didn't know anything about gay people," the Salem, Ore. resident tells ParentDish.
Although her daughter's announcement came as a surprise to her, there were signs along the way that something was wrong.
"She had gotten really distant; I couldn't say anything without her snapping back," she says.
Bowers cried for two days.
"You have a picture in your head of who you think your child is going to be and it is shattered like a broken mirror."
So she sought out parents in similar situations, and eventually helped to form the Salem branch of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Being around parents going through the same thing allowed Bowers to accept and support her daughter and her sexuality.
Educating yourself and unconditionally supporting your child are the most important things you can do after your child comes out to you, says Heidi Allen, professor of social work at Portland State University, tells ParentDish.
"Talking to other parents can allow yourself to paint a picture that your child can grow up and become a contributing member of society," she says.
Allen says children often gauge their parents' general reactions toward homosexuality before deciding whether and when to come out to their families.
"If parents are comfortable with gay people in their life, it's easier for children to say something. You should let your kid know in a variety of ways that someday they will fall in love with a man or a woman and either way they'll be supported," she says. "I don't think every parent starts in that place, it depends on the parents, background and belief system."
Diane Wolter, now president of the Salem, Ore. branch of PFLAG, suspected her son was gay before he ever said anything to her, so she brought up the topic with him.
"I didn't want him to be alone," she tells ParentDish.
She says although it didn't come as a surprise, she went through a certain amount of grieving.
"It's isolating in a sense, I had a few tearful moments. I thought 'I'm losing what I thought I had, what was expected, what was supposed to be. Now I wouldn't want to change it for the world."
She says she blamed herself at first.
"I asked myself if I had done something that made it happen. I was also concerned for his safety, maybe still am sometimes. I don't want him to be targeted with a hate crime, in the wrong place at wrong time."
She says the way a parent responds can deeply affect their child.
"When adolescent gay or lesbians go in to therapy, it's not 'what is the world doing to me?' but 'what have the people I love done to me?' Parents have the power to make a real difference; their love and support makes all the difference in the world."
She says parents should be advocates for their children and supportive of their child's decision of who to tell and when to tell.
"Respect where your kid is at," she says.
Some parents may really have a problem with their child's sexuality for religious reasons or because of their background.
"Having a kid come out to them is going to be a really big deal, I urge parents to think about how much their approval and support means to their kid."
She says if the parents and child are having a hard time it's not unreasonable to go into family therapy.
She adds that sometimes parents say hurtful things without realizing how hurtful they are.
"You don't want to ever say anything no matter how many times you say you are sorry you can't take back."
She says another mistake parents make is assuming that their child is going through a phase.
"Kids don't need their parents to dismiss what they feel; it's marginalizing."
She says it's also important to not let sexual orientation define a child.
"It's only one aspect of who you are; it's the same kid you know and love, you just know one more thing about them, which is a really good thing."
Wolter says 18 years have passed since her son first came out to her and she is proud of who he's become.
Today she makes an effort to reach out to other gay teens through high school gay-straight alliances.
"I want to help someone else who maybe doesn't have parents there to support them. A lot of kids still don't have that."
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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.