I can remember the look of pure disgust that came across my uncle's face each time the subject of homosexuality entered a conversation. I remember hearing my cousins tell derogatory jokes about homosexuals at my grandparents' lakeside cabin, and I remember the short story one of the kids at my school wrote about how the world would be a much better place if all the gays were shipped off to a desert island and left for dead.
It was moments like these that informed my decision not to share my homosexual struggle with my parents or friends—at least not for a very long time. I was in fourth grade when I realized that my feelings for other males were abnormal, yet I didn't share my struggle with any family members until my sophomore year of high school. Each time the subject of homosexuality had been broached in conversation, I could sense their disapproval, so I feared their rejection if my struggle was made known.
"Mom, Dad, I am gay," may be the five most painful and confusing words a parent could ever hear. These words are typically followed by a litany of emotions on both ends of the conversation. While the child has likely spent years coming to terms with this information on his own, the parents have the entire weight of this news placed on them in a single moment. This can be overwhelming—here are five ways to prepare for the conversation:
1. Have respectful and thoughtful conversations about sexuality.
Parents often ask me what they should say when their child comes out to them. However, as I illustrated above, by the time a child shares this information with family, many important conversations have already taken place—conversations parents likely thought were only philosophical in nature.
Children who struggle with their sexual identity have a keen ear to their parents' attitudes about homosexuality. They are listening very carefully to the things you say when you talk, and are noticing the attitudes you have, the words that you use, and the expressions on your face when the subject of homosexuality comes up. They want to know if you are someone who's safe to talk to about this issue.
If you've been gentle and compassionate when discussing the issue prior to having knowledge of your son or daughter's struggle, there will be less anxiety on her part when she shares it with you. Many people who struggle with their sexual orientation are scared to death they'll be rejected by their friends and family if they disclose this struggle. I know I was. Therefore, if you've been calloused or disgusted when discussing the subject, your child may wait until they are much older to confide in you about his sexuality, if he chooses to at all.
Randy Newman of Campus Crusade for Christ tells the story of a young man named Jim who was struggling with homosexuality. Jim was debating whether he should tell members of his campus fellowship about his struggle, but when another student in the group requested prayer for his gay roommate, the group's director condemned homosexuality instead of offering prayer for the roommate. Jim decided then and there it was not a safe place to talk about his homosexuality.
In some cases, a parent or parents may be the first to hear about a child's homosexuality. In this case, the child will likely be more open to receiving help. In other cases, the child may have already opened up to peers and teachers at school, in which case she likely has been encouraged to "come out" and embrace her homosexuality as an identity. Children are far less receptive to their parents' help when they've already decided they are "gay." In fact, they may even resent you for trying to "fix" them.
2. Choose love.
Whether or not your child considers himself to be "gay," the discovery that your child has a homosexual orientation can induce feelings of deep anxiety in parents. I have interacted with many parents who deal with severe anxiety over their child's homosexuality, even parents whose children are now in their 40s and 50s!
Many parents will go through the grieving process as they are forced to process such dramatic new information about their son or daughter. When they get to the "bargaining" stage, parents ask me the question, "How long is it going to take to fix this?" However, the relationship will not be healthy until the parent gives up on "fixing" their child, and instead makes loving them their first priority.
Parents' first response should be affirming love for their child regardless of whether or not he chooses to embrace a gay identity. Each child's way of coping with the homosexual struggle will be different, as will the level of success in resisting or overcoming it. Children need to know their parents' love does not depend on what happens with their sexuality.
In some cases, parents may feel betrayed by their sexually struggling child. This is typically the case with parents who believe their child made the conscious choice to be gay, instead of recognizing that while participating in homosexual behavior is a choice, having a homosexual orientation is not.
3. Know it's not your fault.
Homosexuality is caused by a complex interaction of multiple factors throughout an individual's childhood. It is caused by woundedness and/or confusion that likely wedged itself in your child's psyche when she was very young. When it comes to causation, there are no easy answers.
As Dr. Warren Throckmorton puts it: "It is difficult to research family dynamics and sexual orientation because of the subjectivity of the variables. There are no direct tests of how attached a boy is to his father; recollections of children and parents are subject to bias and reconstruction. In practice, if you believe the reports of men who say they are gay because their fathers were distant, then you are bound to believe the reports of gay men who say they had close relationships with their fathers. In that case, the theory fails as a general explanation for homosexuality because there are numerous gay men and their fathers who report histories of close bonding and mutual love."
Family dynamics do play a role in development of a child's sexuality, and sexually struggling children may experience healing from their homosexuality as they work through unresolved issues with mom and dad, but this does not mean that is always the case, nor does it mean that parents are to blame for their child's homosexuality.
As you work through these issues with your child, it may surface that certain things you did or didn't do as a parent may have contributed to your child's sexual confusion. While that may be the case with your specific child, that doesn't mean what you did was necessarily wrong. The way in which a child perceives and interacts with his environment while growing up is intensely subjective—what affects one child in profoundly negative ways may not affect another child at all.
4. Get educated about homosexuality.
Parents should educate themselves about the causes of homosexuality so they can better understand and have compassion for their struggling child. It is also wise for parents to study the pro-gay movement. Make yourselves aware of the biblical arguments being made in favor of homosexuality, as well as the secular drumbeat that entices young ones to embrace a gay identity. Without question your child has been, or will be, exposed to this information. The more you know, the better equipped you will be for the conversations that will take place.
5. Take care of yourself, and trust God.
Parents should be sure not to neglect their own emotional and spiritual needs as they minister to their struggling child. It is easy for parents to make the child's needs such a focal point that they neglect their own. This is especially the case with parents whose relationship with their son or daughter is co-dependent.
Prayer also plays a pivotal role in helping your son or daughter deal with their sexual confusion in healthy ways. God cares for your child even more than you do, so he can be trusted to act on your behalf if you trust him to do what only he can do inside your child's heart and mind.
In his book Gay Children Straight Parents: A Plan for Family Healing, Richard Cohen wrote: "Once you successfully create an environment of belonging, it will be the fertile and rich soil in which your child may heal and grow into his true gender identity. It is important to remind ourselves that it is not our responsibility to change anyone. It's hard enough to change ourselves! And who has been successful in changing a spouse over the course of a marriage?"
Chad Thompson is author of Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would (Brazos Press), and is a writer and speaker currently living and working in Des Moines, Iowa.