This post is part of our “Big Talks” series—a guide to helping parents navigate the most important conversations they’ll have with their kids. Read more here.
If you want to raise kids who are supportive allies to the LGBTQ community, are sensitive to the challenges they face, and feel safe expressing their own identity, normalize talking about these topics at every age.
I spoke to John Sovec, therapist and author of Out: A Parent’s Guide to Supporting Your LGBTQIA+ Kid Through Coming Out and Beyond, about having big (and small) conversations about these issues with children. These are his top three pieces of advice for raising children who are supportive and secure about sexual orientation and gender identity:
1. Talk openly and often about the experience of LGBTQIA+ people.
2. Be aware of how expressing LGBTQIA+ supportive thoughts, actions, and language influences and shapes how children will develop that same inclusive approach for themselves and their friends.
3. Know that this is an ongoing conversation and as parents, be available for when these questions and curiosities arise.
Understanding terms and acronyms
Table of Contents
If you feel like you need your own refresher on LGBTQ lingo, this is a good resource. Remember, language is always growing and evolving. If you or your child hears a term you don’t know, look it up and learn together. Also, lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual can mean different things to different people.
“My biggest piece of advice if kids are asking questions around gender and identity is to not shut them down,” said Andy Passchier, author of Gender Identity for Kids: A Book About Finding Yourself, Understanding Others, and Respecting Everybody! “And if you don’t have the answers to go out looking for them together.”
From birth, children are exposed to gender stereotypes and messages that heterosexual relationships are the “norm.” You can counteract that by making sure the books and media your family consumes represent diversity in gender presentation and relationships.
In their series on how to talk to kids about identity, Planned Parenthood suggests you start talking to preschoolers about different kinds of families, like kids who are raised by grandparents, families with one parent, families of different ethnicities, or families with same-sex parents. Making the point that families and relationships vary a lot will help children accept people who are different from them.
Beware of gender stereotypes like “girls like pink” or “boys don’t wear nail polish.” My go-to when I hear one of these assumptions from my child is, “Some boys do; some girls don’t. Nothing is really just for boys or just for girls.”
“I think it’s super valuable to challenge these ideas when they come up and to talk to kids about gender just so they know the options that are presented to them aren’t the only ones available,” Passchier said. “I think often parents think that topics about gender identity only need to be spoken about when someone in the family is transgender, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. Gender stereotypes are harmful for cisgender and transgender people alike, as they push us all into boxes we might not necessarily be comfortable in.”
Talking with tweens and teens
Older kids are more likely to be aware of LGBTQ issues (like legislation, protests, and discrimination) through the news or social media.
“Although they may be aware of these challenging issues, teens and tweens may not have developed the capacity to process them, and it is vital for parents to nurture a home environment where these fears and anxieties can be openly discussed,” Sovec said. “As these challenging issues come to light, parents can use them as a catalyst to start conversations with their kids by simply asking them about their thoughts and feelings on these topics. Listen and learn about their conceptualization about these issues and step in to alleviate any fears or anxieties that may have developed out of these thoughts.”
At any time in childhood or adolescence, kids may experience the coming out of a friend or family member. The best way to teach your child to be a supportive ally is to show them that you are a supportive ally.
“A parent can model how to be supportive by creating a home environment where talking about LGBTQIA+ identities is simply a part of the family vocabulary,” Sovec said. “As parents create a home where aspects of gender identity and sexual orientation are openly talked about, it will assist kids in becoming supportive of the journey of their LGBTQIA+ friends and peers.”
How to respond if your kid is questioning or comes out
Sovec’s recommendation for how to respond to a questioning or coming out kid is a simple, two-step process:
- Step 1: Hug your child (or an expression of affection you are both comfortable with).
- Step 2: Tell them you love them for exactly who they are.
“This pivotal moment can set up a strong foundation for support, so that an LGBTQIA+ kid will know that their parent is there for them as they explore their gender identity and sexual orientation,” he said. “A next powerful step is for parents to educate themselves on information about the LGBTQIA+ experience so that they can be an educated resource as they support their child.”
There will be plenty of opportunities to talk about it as your child figures out how they identify and want to express themselves. Your openness to listening and acceptance will be your best conversation tools.
“I think parenting is ultimately all about discovering what’s right for you and your specific children, encouraging openness and empathy whenever we can,” Passchier said.
See the list below for resources to help you and your child learn more about LGBTQ issues.