I was chatting with a parent recently when she casually mentioned that her daughter had just come out as non-binary. While the disclosure came as a surprise to Mom, she felt equipped with enough information to support her kiddo. The question was more about approaching extended family, who may be less accepting.
“I was worried they’d think it was something I had done, or not done, that caused this.”
So much to unpack here; fortunately, we had plenty of time and coffee. I talked with her about the coming out process. Most of this discussion centers on the person who is disclosing; rightly so, this is a big step.
Even in the most supportive homes, coming out to one’s family brings with it an element of unknown.
The other side of this conversation is a parent who may, or may not, already have an inkling of their child’s queerness. That parent often has only a few seconds to process this new info and respond. Those seconds can seem like an eternity to everyone involved in the conversation.
It’s important to acknowledge that parents and family members all go through their own process after a child comes out. This is completely normal—it’s a natural response to taking in new information about someone’s selfhood.
Parents also spend a lot of mental energy rotating across tasks. One minute you’re noting the details of a dental appointment, then pivot to reminding yourself to pick up more beets, then “bam” your kid walks into the kitchen and comes out as non-binary. And now the dog wants back in. Seriously, this is how it happens, people.
Let’s take a step back and look at the dynamics playing out. Parents tend to have a great deal invested in their kid’s identity. Before the child is born, parents often construct a perception of who they will become. When a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity is something other than what was assumed, that parent needs to adapt.
Responses, like the Mom’s above, are largely related to early messages people received about what it means to be LGBTQ. Parents thinking that they are somehow responsible for their kid’s queerness lands squarely in misinformation around gender and attractions. These kids were bisexual, gay, gender fluid, transgender long before they shared this with you. Beliefs that something “caused” (or can “uncause”) this personal aspect of one’s identity is damaging to your child.
Creating space for your adult feelings does not negate your responsibility to support your kiddo.
Redirecting their gender identity or sexual orientation to protect them from bullies? Those behaviors only make you their bully.
So, my advice to parents is this—acknowledge going through your own process. Stay aware and attune to your reactions, however deeply personal. Then educate yourself. Find resources and a support network that is research-based. Facts over fear, trust me on this.
Remember, it is you who’s catching up on the info, not your child. This is the same kiddo they always have been, you’ve just been privileged into another aspect of their identity.
Now, here are a few tips to guide your way.
1. Remember that sexual orientation (gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, etc.) is only a part of your child’s identity. By trying to show how accepting they are, parents may accidently out the child. Like everything else in raising kids, it’s not about you. It’s about them.
2. They did not suddenly attain the title of “your trans daughter” or “your queer non-binary child.” Just like people don’t feel compelled to introduce a child as their cis daughter or straight son, sexual orientation and gender identity are personal and private. Any disclosure of orientation or gender identity is up to the child, unless they advise you otherwise.
3. Allow yourself time to process, but remember that you don’t ever get that time back. Disowning, abusing (physical, emotional, psychological), or other forms of denial will not unqueer your child. They are entitled to their own unique awesomeness and belong only to themselves.
4. Whether it takes a parent 15 seconds or 15 days to process depends on myriad influences. Find experts on gender and sexual orientation, then ask questions. Love, protect, and advocate for your child.
5. Yes, they still need to keep curfew and take out the trash—see above; same kid as before.
Note: Enthusiastic consent to share the parental exchange was obtained from all parties. Also, names and some potentially identifying details have been anonymized. Because consent is cool.
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