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Tips for talking to your kids about sexual orientation

mom talking with teenage daughter on couch

Families are diverse and don’t look the same for each child. It’s not unusual for someone to have two mommies or two daddies. If your kids are curious – like most children are – they may ask you about it. These questions are a great opportunity to share information with your child about important topics like sexual orientation and healthy relationships. Through providing health care to teens for the past decade, I’ve picked up some tips on how to talk with my kids that I hope can help you. Let’s start with the basics of sexual orientation.

What is sexual orientation?

How I typically explain sexual orientation is “When you think about who you are interested in romantically or physically, who do you picture? Males, females, both, neither?”

Sexual orientation really is that physical attraction and romantic attraction. It is distinct from gender identity. Gender identity is who a person sees themselves as on the gender spectrum (such as female, male, non-binary). Sexual orientation is who you think you are attracted to or could see yourself loving.

Some terms you may have heard include lesbian (a woman attracted only to women), gay (a man attracted only to men; also used as another term for lesbian), bisexual (a person attracted to both male and female genders), heterosexual (a person attracted to the opposite gender) and pansexual (a person attracted to another person without regard for gender). Often, sexual orientation and gender identity get lumped together by the use of the abbreviation LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning).

When to have that conversation?

So when should you talk to your child about sexual orientation? My advice is to talk to your kids about sexual orientation and, more broadly healthy relationships, early and often. As with most topics that fall under the umbrella of sexual or reproductive health, rather than having a one and done conversation or “the talk,” it should be many conversations over time. You can dive into deeper conversations as your child gets older.

By the start of puberty, which can be as early as 8-9 years old for girls and 9-10 years old for boys, the goal would be to have had several (if not many) “mini” conversations about topics that set the foundation for healthy relationships with friends, their own bodies and, eventually, romantic relationships. Sexual orientation is one thread of the beautiful tapestry of who your child is and how they interact with the world. No need to ask your child what their sexual orientation is, but rather explore their thoughts and feelings with them as they develop. Things will become clear when they do.

How might you accomplish this? Rather than one daunting, formal “sit-down” conversation, look for teachable moments. When my kids and I are in the car, my daughter might tell me her friend has a crush on someone. That can become a teachable moment to ask questions like “What do you think about that?” or “Do you have feelings for anyone?” And, to round out the discussion to include healthy relationships, I might say “How would you handle having a crush on somebody at school?” and even “What does it mean for someone to be a good romantic partner or a not so good one?” The focus for that question is to provide the opportunity to talk about respect, trust, kindness, support, etc. (check out www.loveisrespect.org and www.futureswithoutviolence.org for more info about healthy relationships).

Then, as your conversations progress, you can gauge where your child is with their own feelings, what level they are at in understanding and offer that reassurance to them that you are open to listening. I also like to thank my kids for sharing their thoughts with me. Remember, your kids don’t have to share this stuff with you. If they learn it’s not safe, they will seek out other avenues to get information. To me, this provides motivation to try my best to provide that safe, loving environment to talk even if it’s uncomfortable.

Why is this important to talk about?

Research tells us family support is important. Sexual minority youth (e.g., those that identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual-LGB) are almost 5 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers (1). In addition, LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are over 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than their LGB peers from families with low or no rejection (2). Sexual and gender minority youth are overrepresented in the homeless population (meaning more homeless youth are LGBTQ than “straight”). The good news is that evidence suggests parental communication and monitoring is protective against these poor outcomes (3). With a little help, we can grow as parents, and humans, to be what our children need us to be.

Tips for parents

  • Find teachable moments.

Teachable moments are everywhere. From song lyrics to TV to meeting people in our community. There are lots of chances to start a conversation with your kids. I think these moments can also take the pressure off both kids and parents because it’s not daunting. A great place to start is, “what do you think about that?” Then that can open the next step in the conversation.

  • Tell them you love them for the whole of who they are.

Knowing what is not said is sometimes as important as what is said. For example, maybe on TV two men kiss and Uncle Joe shows anger about it or makes a rude joke. If you never circle back to that, the child might hear that your family doesn’t think that’s okay. So, maybe following up with your child later asking them about how Uncle Joe reacted (like “What did you think about Uncle Joe’s words when he was watching TV?”) Starting a conversation about it can create an open space for discussion. You can follow up with, “Can I tell you what I think about it?” You can take that opportunity to share your values and beliefs even in a simple statement like “I believe people should feel free to find the partner they love and trust.” To circle back to the theme of healthy relationships, you could reframe that conversation to be around if they were in love or kissing or touching on a first date, for example. You could then talk about what love is, how it feels or looks and how to handle physical intimacy (such as kissing, touching, sex) when you are interested in someone. Again, this offers another opportunity for you to share your own values and beliefs.

Making sure you follow up with your child and sharing that they have a safe space to talk about how they feel is important. We often assume our children know we love them no matter what, but that’s not always the case. It’s good practice to tell them you love them for the whole of who they are and tell them they can talk with you. If you are uncomfortable or unwilling to talk, it’s a good idea to pick out a trusted adult you can point them to.

  • Know that each child is different.

We have two children and they often hear things differently. My now 8-year-old has always needed a deep dive when I explain things, while my 5-year-old is content with simpler explanations. For those deep dives, it might be best to have those conversations about sexual orientation separately, if possible. Each child is their own individual and may have varying levels of questions, understandings and experiences.

  • Understand that it’s okay to pause.

As a parent, I know we might not always be in the right mindset for these important conversations (like when you’re driving in rush hour traffic). So, one tip I can offer is that it’s OK to come back to the conversation. Telling your child that it’s an important topic and you’re happy they brought it up and then ask if we can talk about it another time, perhaps when we’re are able to carve out a few minutes alone. I have absolutely done that. I may go reread some trusted online resources (like the ones given below), take a few deep breaths and then come back feeling a bit more prepared mentally. Just don’t forget to actually follow up with your child if you choose this path! Sometimes I even ask my child to remind me if I forget and they always seem to remember 😊.

What resources are there?

Here is a brief list of helpful resources for parents and families to guide discussion and provide more information:

I hope each parent also has a strong support network themselves, because no matter the topic, we could all use a little help.

References:

  1. (2016). Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Risk Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  2. Ryan C, Huebner D, Diaz RM, et al. Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults. Pediatrics.2009; Jan;123(1):346-52. doi: 10.1542/peds.2007-3524.
  3. Newcomb ME, LaSala MC, Bouris A, et al. The Influence of Families on LGBTQ Youth Health: A Call to Action for Innovation in Research and Intervention Development. LGBT Health. 2019;6(4):139–145. doi:10.1089/lgbt.2018.0157

Adolescent Medicine