Published on in Health Tip of the Week
June is Pride Month, and seeing the various LGBTQ celebrations on the news and in the community may be the perfect opportunity for you to begin conversations about sexual identity with your children. But you shouldn't limit your conversation to one month; look for opportunities throughout the year to discuss gender and identity issues with your kids. It could be a story on the news, questions from your child or an experience in your community. Use your child's questions as teachable moments to expand both your child's understanding and your own.
Starting a conversation with your kids about gender identity doesn't have to be one big TALK. In fact, it's better for kids – and parents – to have multiple conversations about gender identity throughout childhood, into adolescence and early adulthood.
First, educate yourself
If you are not sure about the origins of the Pride Parade or other events, educate yourself. Look up the Stonewall riots of 1969, learn why people were protesting and how, over the years, the protests have shifted into events that celebrate diversity and a continued push for equal rights. Learning about the whole spectrum of gender identities – gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary and queer – can help you answer questions from your kids.
Start the conversation
Once you have a basic understanding of the spectrum of LGBTQ identities, you can start the conversation with your kids. A few places to start may be while eating dinner together, watching the news, or when something related comes up in conversation. Your child may tell you a story about a classmate or a topic they are discussing in school, for example.
Ask your child open-ended questions to better understand what they know, think and feel. Let their responses guide your discussion. Talk positively about all the diversity that exists in our world – race, ethnicity, gender expression, sexual orientation – and that all these identities make us unique and wonderful people.
Remind your kids that you'll love them forever – even if you don't know exactly who they'll be in the future. Make your home (or a specific room) a safe zone so kids know they can come talk to you about anything, ask questions, discuss feelings and more – and that you will not reject or make fun of them. If verbal communication is challenging, try creating a journal for the two of you to share.
One of the biggest fears we hear from youth is that their parents and important adults in their lives will stop loving them because they are "different." Kids are very sensitive to a lack of support – wherever it comes from. As parents, we can be a buffer to negative talk and prevent long-term negative health outcomes.
The Family Acceptance Project in California has researched the impact of family support on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer children, teens and adults. One startling statistic is the rate of suicide attempts for LGBTQ youth who receive rejection from their families.
Youth who experienced highly rejecting behaviors from their family were eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those who experienced love and acceptance from their parents and caregivers. Even a small bit of change can make a tremendous difference in the mental health of our youth. For youth who experienced moderate rejection (some negativity, but also some positive support), the research group found those LGBTQ youth were only twice as likely to attempt suicide.
We can help our kids by making sure we are creating moments of inclusion in our families and social networks. Our kids are listening and absorbing what we do, say or not say when a gay joke is told in our presence, a transgender person is misidentified, or a person is belittled because of who they are or how they dress. We might not always know how a person identifies or what our child is going through, but creating environments where we prioritize tolerance and kindness is a great way to build a stronger foundation of trust and acceptance in your family.
Gender roles and stereotypes begin early, and as parents, we often perpetuate them unwittingly. Baby girls are often given pink dresses and dolls; baby boys are usually given blue overalls and trucks. Often, we don't even think about it.
To better help our kids, we can encourage them at a young age to pursue their own interests – whether it be dolls or trucks, puzzles or games – and choose their own "play" clothes. The more children feel empowered to make their own choices, the more likely they will come to you later if they have questions.
As parents, you can role-model acceptance of people's differences by what you do and say – and what you don't do or say. For example, when someone makes a comment about a person's looks or sexuality, do you just laugh it off or do you say it was inappropriate? Does your answer depend on who you are with? Your kids are also dealing with these sensitive issues. Ask them what they would do or say if they were being teased. What if they witnessed a friend getting teased, or a classmate they don't know very well? It's human nature to have a range of feelings depending on how closely a situation impacts us. We can teach our kids to be compassionate, when it's appropriate to get involved, and when to ask an adult for help.
Conversations about gender and sexuality change over time, which is why this talk cannot be done only once. A conversation with a 5-year-old will be very different than that with a 15-year-old. Luckily, there are helpful resources (some listed below) to assist parents in how to navigate developmentally appropriate conversations with your children.
By building a foundation of love and acceptance with your child early in their lives, you will help them gain a strong and positive sense-of-self. Through teaching and modeling acceptance for LGBTQ identities, you also help your child become a positive agent for change in our world.
Samantha King (pronouns she/her/hers) is a Family Support and Education Specialist in the Gender & Sexuality Development Clinic at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
- Gender Spectrum, a nonprofit group working to create gender sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens.
- Recommended reading by the Human Rights Campaign.
- For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out, and Coming Home by Keith Boykin.
- This is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids: A Question and Answer Guide to Everyday Life by Danielle Owens.
- Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender Non-Conforming Children by Diane Ehrensaft.
- Transgender Children and Youth: Cultivating Pride and Joy with Families in Transition by Elijah Neely.
- Additional resources by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
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Contributed by: Samantha King, MSW, MEd, LSW