As parents, we hope that we engender trust between ourselves and our children such that they feel that they could tell us anything. After all, we have been there, done that and bought the t shirt too boot. Because of what we may have done when we were young...or even just because we know whats out there...we want to be able to steer our kids through those things in perhaps a better way than we navigated them ourselves. Sex, bullying, drugs, hell...even life on the internet are all things we have to talk to our kids about in order for them to have the tools to face them as competent individuals with solid life skills. We give them the best of our experience and set limits and consequences for behavior in the hopes that we are being the best parents that we can be. Being a parent myself, I understand this all too well.
But...Being a part of a family who's lives are all over the internet put us in conversation with all kinds of people from around the world. One of those groups are teens and preteens who are struggling with the knowledge that they are gay. Some have already come out...some are still working that out...but put together, these kids have a voice and a message that I think many parents need to hear. It's not often easy to hear it, but it is vital that we do with an open heart because our kids lives may depend on it.
Having mentored more than a few kids online the first question that most parents have is, "why is my child talking to adults online?! Who are they and what do they want?!" As a dad, I understand and I don't ever take offense when a parents first response is alarm. I would react the same way. But what the these parents often don't understand is that their kids went to the internet to explore a part of themselves they did not feel safe talking about at home. It's these words not said that I think parents most need to hear.
This weekend I was talking with a young man who had come out to his family and his friends and not having an easy time because of it. The truth that was supposed to set him free hadn't lived up to it's promise. Instead, his parents have signed him up for a therapist that is supposed to "convince him of the harms of homosexuality". In other words... ex-gay therapy. He describes his parents lovingly, but also as religious and his admission to them has sent them into crisis mode. There attempts to convince him, instead of protecting him from a perceived harm, have sent a clear message to him that who he knows he is inside is not acceptable to them. A wall has come down in which it was no longer ok to even say the word gay out loud. I remember this all began with an out of the blue Facebook post that simply read, "how do I come out to my parents?" followed a short while later by..."too late....that didn't go very well." Indeed it did not, nor is his story unique among those we receive Too many kids get this response making it a real reason to second guess coming out to your parents.
Not long before that, another young man who reached out to us via YouTube who's story ended a little better. He had barely come to terms with his sexuality. He knew that he was gay but was having some shame about it. He had an otherwise great relationship with his mom and wanted to tell her...but for fear of her potential response, put it off and agonized over the question for weeks until my husband recommended that he write her a letter and slip it into her current favorite book where she would have to see it. He wrote the letter...and it was beautiful. It was full of so much insight and heart that I am convinced that it would have reduced any parent to tears. And there he was with this beautifully written letter in his hands...and yet he still held onto it for a few more weeks until he could work up the courage to slip it into her book. Ultimately, she read it. they talked, and both of them grew closer. But even in this situation where a young person has a pretty close relationship with their family and coming out ended well...he still had to struggle to understand how he would tell her...IF he should tell her and he had a great deal of uncertainty how she would react. There were many things he could not say to her when he was struggling to deal with it himself and it took talking to someone else to help him get enough confidence to begin to open up to her.
There are kids that are cutting themselves, some that talk about running away, and others who are just lost in an emotional pit of loneliness and despair because they don't feel like they have anyone to talk to about there feelings around being gay. For LGBT kids, there is the real fear that if they open up to their families or friends that those people may not stand by them. And if we can not rely on our parents and friends to love and accept us...where do go? Who do you turn to?
In addition to this is the fact that most of the kids I talk to, want to do what they see their straight friends doing...dating and fall in love. That's a tricky thing to do when your still in high school. How do you know who's gay?...Do you take the risk of asking someone out?...what happens when it doesn't work out like you hope? All issues over and above what your average love-seeking straight teen has to deal with. In a recent conversation I talked to a young man who had asked another boy out only to have it go wrong. the boy was not gay and he was completely broken up about it. Not only had he put himself out there and taken a rather huge risk...he had lost a friend also. The whole event had done nothing but underscore his feeling of isolation, loneliness and shame. As most of his friends had probably dated and broken up countless times...all he was looking for was the same chance and for that he felt such intense shame. As I told him..."for what? for wanting the same things his straight friends had? What was to be ashamed of in that?" He took a risk and it didn't pan out, that takes great courage! I wish that LGBT kids in high school would understand that... their feelings and the way that the world reacts to them doesn't say anything bad about them...only about the world we live in. Sometimes, knowing that alone can help someone begin to build an identity based on the courage and strength that they will need to face life's hardships. How much better would it have been to be able to take that hurt home to a mom or dad that would hug him and let him know that he was ok? Isn't that what other kids get to do?
The point of the post is not to encourage you to ruthlessly patrol your child's online accounts. As a parent, you need to be aware of those anyway. I only hoped to get across to you that an lgbt child may not feel safe enough to talk about these things at home and as parents, we can do something about that. Sometimes they are hurting immeasurably and looking for answers online to questions like....why they are the way that they are?, what will become of them growing up gay?, are they ok?, how do they tell people? how do they know who's safe to tell? how do they find someone to date and love?...and what do they do now? Considering how much all of us google our questions now it should come as no surprise that our kids do to.
But, with so much uncertainty about what would happen if they opened up to their parents or their friends, they look elsewhere. They put their hearts out there on Facebook and YouTube in places that they feel they can find those answers and they look for the world in which they feel they belong. If we say we really love our kids unconditionally, that place ought to be right in our hearts...but oftentimes, I hear exactly the opposite.
Being a parent...but not their parent means that I have a certain perspective and a whole lot of limitations in how I handle what I hear and what I advise. But the best thing I or anyone else can do in that situation is just be a good listener first. Not everyone who reaches out to us want's their problems solved for them. Most just want connection and to know they are not alone. They are looking for someone to listen to them and to tell them that they are...A) completely normal and....B)not alone. That is the bulk of advice someone like me will ever hand out to your kids. As someone who has been in exactly their position but also someone who is a stranger to their lives....I know that I can never replace the love and acceptance that can come from you...their parent. If I feel like it's safe and they aren't likely to face being disowned or worse, I recommend that they give their parents a little credit and talk to them about it...but sometimes that's not possible, as in the case of the boy who's parents are now taking him to a reparative therapist.
As one of those people who your kids go to when they feel like they can't talk to you, I wish that all parents would understand that all these kids are looking for is love and acceptance from the people they hold most dear. In the absence of that sense of absolute safety, they will reach out to other sources....if we really want our kids to trust us and be able to tell us anything, than issues of sexuality and sexual identity need to be included under the banner of, "I'll love you even if
So while it might freak you out that your teenager might be reaching out online for a sense of identity and belonging...before you fly off the handle, consider why it's happening and what's really going on. Your children are not being indoctrinated into some imagined lifestyle ..they are reaching out for help and understanding because they have gotten so little of that. They need to know that who they are isn't bad and as parents, we have a choice...we can either shut down and refuse to hear it, or we can stretch our hearts a bit more and listen. I know it's tough, but I have heard mountains of heartbreak from LGBT kids such that I wish every parent could be privy to it. If they can't talk to you at home, they will talk to someone like me and I will do the best I can to tell that they are ok....that they will get through it...and that there is nothing wrong with who they are. Wouldn't that message mean so much more coming from you?
Your kids are talking and what they have to say is pretty incredible. We raise our children with the best that we have to give them. If we tell that that we love them no matter what, then we have to live up to that. We need to remember that we may not like some of what we hear...but it's up to us to be the grown ups.The alternative is to leave them alone in isolation trying to work it out for themselves and living with a pain none of us wish our children to endure. That pain is not there because they are gay...it's their because the world treats them different and wrong for that difference. Repeating that same message is not protecting them from that world...it's only reinforcing it's message.Your kids are talking...are you listening?
Until next time dear readers.....