You have a valuable and life-long opportunity to help provide your child with self-confidence and self-love and teach them to show the same compassion and respect for others. Children who have regular conversations with parents and caregivers from a young age regarding sex and relationships are less likely to take sexual health risks and more likely to lead healthy lives. How you approach, view, and talk about sexual orientation affects how your child will view others and, ultimately, how they will view themselves. A 2019 study by QCARES assessed the mental health experiences and needs of people in SLO County who identify as transgender, nonbinary, and/or LGBQ+. It found that 72% of LGBQ+ participants reported moderate or high psychological distress and of those that reported distress, about 57% said their distress was related to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity (QCARES, 2019). Additionally, the study found that 25% of sexual minority participants reported “that they regularly hear derogatory slurs directed toward them” and 62% of LGBQ+ participants reported watching what they say and do around heterosexual people (QCARES, 2019). Experiencing this kind of distress, harassment, and vigilance when it comes to sexual orientation can have serious lifelong consequences for the mental and physical health and wellbeing of LGBQ+ individuals. Furthermore, homophobia, biphobia, and heterosexism all play a role in the power and control dynamics at the root of intimate partner violence (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs [NCAVP], 2017). You have a role in creating a healthier, happier, safer, and more inclusive SLO County by raising children who are confident and supported in their sexual orientation and who approach others with the same compassion and respect.
Sexual orientation is a person’s enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction to other people. It’s tied to how people- including your child- will form relationships with others and meet their fundamental needs for love, attachment, and intimacy. Sexual orientation ranges along a spectrum or continuum, with individuals feeling different degrees and types of attraction for different types of people. All sexual orientations are normal and natural variations of human identity, behavior, and experience. Current research has produced no findings that support definitive conclusions on what factors affect who develops what sexual orientation. It is not something that is caused by how children are raised or by something that they experienced when they were young. Your child’s sexual orientation is simply a fundamental part of who they are. You have an amazing opportunity to help them develop love, compassion, and respect for their own identity, as well as the identity of others.
As you consider how to discuss sexual orientation with your child, there are a few harmful assumptions to be aware of. The first is the assumption of heteronormativity, or the assumption that children will be heterosexual/straight. This could look like discussing only heterosexual/straight relationships with your child or only exposing your child to stories with heterosexual/straight characters. Growing up under these assumptions can make children afraid of exploring their identity and having conversations with you about sexual orientation. This kind of fear and shame can have detrimental effects on your child’s mental health and wellbeing. Another assumption is that children are too young to explore, know, or understand their own sexual orientation. Current research indicates that a child’s patterns of attraction begin to emerge during middle school and early adolescence. The experience and expression of this developing understanding looks different for everyone. Some children may feel certain early on that they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, straight, or a different identity. Others may take more time to explore feelings and experiences before feeling comfortable with labeling their sexual orientation. Still others may not ever have a label they prefer or feel comfortable using. All of these are equally valid ways that children begin to understand their sexual orientation. An additional assumption is that a child’s sexual orientation is a choice or a phase. While sexual orientation can be fluid and people may choose to change what label they feel most comfortable with, most people don’t experience a sense of choice when it comes to their sexual orientation. Consider your own sexual orientation, have you ever felt like you could change it if you chose to? Efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation have life-long detrimental effects on their health, relationships, and future (can link to conversion therapy article). Reflect on how these assumptions sit with you and if any of them offer an opportunity for personal growth and alterations to how you approach conversations regarding sexual orientation with your child.
In order to provide accurate and inclusive information for you child, educate yourself about sexual orientation and the spectrum of sexual orientation before, during, and after conversations about sexual orientation arise. Provide clear and stable support for your child and their sexual orientation. Your child’s psychological wellbeing is benefitted by viewing their sexual orientation positively and your support is a vital component of this positive self-image. Talk to your child at all ages. Creating and maintaining an open dialogue about sexual orientation with your child and setting an example for how to treat others helps your child learn to be compassionate, empathetic, respectful, and inclusive of other people and it helps them feel more comfortable talking about their own sexual orientation with you. Always let your child know you love them. Below are some tips for talking about sexual orientation with children of different ages.
Terms to Know
LGBTQIA+: an acronym used to designate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual individuals; + represents any sexual or gender identities or orientations not represented as a letter in the acronym
Lesbian: an adjective to describe a woman* who is attracted to other women*
Gay: an adjective to describe those who are attracted to people of the same gender
Bisexual: an adjective to describe those who carry attraction towards two or more gender or their same gender and other genders
Transgender: a term to describe those whose gender identity or expression does not fit or match their assigned sex
Queer: a term that can be applied to sexual orietnation, gender identity, or both and can include LGBTQIA+ individuals
Questioning: an adjective to describe individuals who are questioning their sexual orientation and/or their gender identity
Intersex: a term used to describe those who develop primary or secondary sex characteristics that fall outside the societal expectations for assigning male or female sex
Asexual: an adjective to describe people who do not experience sexual attraction; asexual people may or may not experience other forms of attraction
Pansexual: an adjective to describe those who are attracted to individuals of all genders or to people regardless of their gender
Heterosexual: an adjective to describe those who are attracted to individuals of a gender other than their own
Be mindful about the language and words you use to talk about other people and sexual orientation in their presence. They may be young, but they are listening for your example. Your words and actions influence how they view others and themselves.
Elementary School-Aged Children
Talk about different types of families, whether they have one parent, a mom and a dad, two mommies, two daddies, or a different combination of caregivers. Tell them that not all families look the same, but they are still filled with love. Emphasize that you respect families of all types
When discussing where babies come from, let them know there are lots of ways it can happen. Some people get help from doctors or other people. Others adopt their children. All of these are ways that all kinds of parents can have a baby.
Find out what your child knows about different sexual orientations and help them understand what they mean.
Don’t be afraid to use words including, but not limited to, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual when they’re relevant to the conversation you’re having.
Be mindful of how you talk about your child in future relationships and your assumptions about those relationships. Don’t assume the type of partner your child will have.
Let them know that homophobic language is unacceptable.
Expose them to books, TV shows, and movies with LGBTQ+ characters.
Middle School-Aged Children
Support your child as they explore their personal patterns of attraction and their identity. Your support can be a powerful protective factor for challenges they may face.
Show your child you won’t stand for homophobic language or discrimination and you’ll stand up against them for your child and for others.
Expose them to LGBTQ+ role models including athletes, writers, and actors.
Talk to them about LGBTQ+ people they may know or recognize from the media. Use this as an opportunity to say you respect all sexual orientations.
When talking about their sexual orientation, use the same language and words they use.
Don’t pressure your child to admit their sexual orientation and respect who they feel comfortable sharing their sexual orientation with. Let them talk to you when they’re comfortable doing so.
Talk to them about their friends, crushes, and relationships.
Ask what you can do to help them feel supported.
High School-Aged Children and Teenagers
Support your child and their sexual orientation. Your support is a powerful protective factor for some of the challenges they could face in their lives.
Don’t assume you know your child’s sexual orientation.
Let them know you respect individuals of all sexual orientations and discuss LGBTQ+ people they may know or recognize. Maintain an open dialogue full of compassion and respect for their feelings and for other people.
Meet and get to know the people they date.
Talk to them about safer sex and birth control and include information that is inclusive and mindful of a variety of sexual orientations and attractions.
Make sure your home is a safe space where your child can feel comfortable being themselves and talking to you about the support they need.
Be clear that you do not tolerate homophobic language.
Support and encourage an interest in books, TV shows, movies, and other media that include LGBTQ+ characters.
Encourage them to explore LGBTQ+ communities and organizations.
If your child comes out to you, it can be a challenging moment for the both of you. You may be confronted by your own beliefs, values, and emotions. You may feel worried about your child and what that means for how they will be treated by others. At the same time, coming out can be a scary thing for young people as well. They may fear rejection, disappointment, and disapproval from those they come out to, especially from you. Respect and trust their experience with their own sexual orientation and use the same words and language that they use to talk about their sexual orientation. Help them figure out who they’re comfortable coming out to, how they can come out, and what they can do if others don’t take it well. Find organizations for both you and your child to connect to others going through similar experiences. The absolute most important thing is for you to tell and show your child that you love them and respect their identity.
Remember- it is never too late to start these conversations. You can start by having small check-ins and little talks to facilitate an open dialogue with your child. Try it when you next talk to your child. Maintaining this dialogue and having these conversations will get more comfortable the more you do it. Stress that you’re someone they can come to for support and you’re there to talk to if they have any questions. Utilize teachable moments such as seeing LGBTQ+ reperesenation on TV or meeting another child at school with same-sex parents to start conversations about what your child knows and how they feel about sexual orientation. Doing so allows your children to have more confidence in themselves and contributes to a SLO County culture of inclusivity, respect, compassion, and empathy.
*in this article, “woman” and “women” is used to refer to all female identifying persons
Support Groups in SLO County:
SAGA City (support group for LGBTQIA+ and ally middle schoolers and high schoolers)
Further Learning and Relearning: