Ask the Expert: How to Talk to Children about LGBTQIA+
Sometimes all the talk around sexual orientation and gender identity can feel overwhelming. So just imagine how your kid feels, especially if they are questioning their sexuality or just plain curious, but afraid to ask questions.
Many parents are well-meaning and want to be open and supportive, but don’t know where to begin.
So we asked Mary-Katherine Stone, an occupational therapist, and a member of The University of Vermont Medical Center’s LGBTQIA+ Employee Resource Group and Anna Hankins, MD, a pediatrician and site leader for pediatrics at UVM Health Network – Central Vermont Medical Center to have an open conversation answering some of your questions.
Q: What does LGBTQIA+ mean?
A: The acronym LGBTQIA+ means Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual or Aromantic or Agender and represents the spectrum of sexual identity and gender fluidity. The + represents those who are part of the community, but for whom LGBTQ does not accurately capture or reflect their identity.
Q: How should parents initiate open conversations about LGBTQIA+ topics with their children?
A: I see some parents who don't talk about it at all and are vaguely afraid of it. Then, sometimes parents have this idea that if we talk about something, then we put the idea in a kid's mind so therefore we shouldn't talk about it. The problem with that mindset is it leads to shame because the child is hearing that this is something we don't talk about. Shame and secrecy are not good ways to approach things. It’s important to create a feeling of safety with our children to have these conversations. Parents need to feel comfortable talking to their children in a developmentally appropriate manner. Using very clear terms is always better than not talking about it, no matter what the topic is, whether it's eating your vegetables or gender identity or sexual orientation or suicide or bullying. It's always better to have conversations and not shy away from difficult topics.
Q: How can parents and caregivers invite these conversations to take place?
A: Our children are always listening and watching – they’re absorbing our humor, how we respond to the news, the shows we watch and the conversations we have in the home. If we display a lack of tolerance for certain orientations, it can lead to shame and secrecy.
To encourage healthy conversations with your child, it’s important to convey that you’re open to learning and will validate their feelings. Creating a sense of respect and curiosity will help create respectful interactions with your child.
Q: How can parents or guardians support their children and others with a healthy-growth mindset around gender and sexual orientation?
A: It all comes down to respectful and validating conversations. It’s important to stay away from responding with humor or denial, such as “You don't mean that.” “How could you know that?” or “You're too young to know anything about that.” Those responses do not validate your child’s questions. Instead, be open and curious and say things like, “Tell me more,” or “I'm interested in what you're saying and I'd love to hear more about that,” or “How does that make you feel when you think those thoughts?”
It’s important to be willing and present in a conversation that may be a little bit uncomfortable or may be different than your own lived experience. Sitting still and staying respectful, rather than panicking and running, helps validate your child’s feelings and questions.
Q: How did you respond when your own child came out as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community?
A: I can tell you that it's really easy to give advice as a pediatrician and it's a lot harder to do that as a parent. When my oldest child came out to me, my response was: “Doesn't that just mean you haven't met the right boy?” This was an incredibly non-validating and ignorant response. Thankfully, my daughter was able to say “Mom, I know you're coming from a place of ignorance, and so I forgive you and we'll just keep talking.” That snapped me out of it and made me realize just how foolish I had been. Sometimes we’re going to screw up, but if we've established a baseline of respect and validation, our kids are going to put up with us, thankfully.
Q: How should well-intentioned people stay informed?
A: Gender identity and sexual orientation, and the language used to speak about these topics, can feel new and confusing. If you approach these topics from a place of learning and curiosity, you’ll be just fine. Pediatricians or primary care providers can be helpful for guidance. Parent-to-parent support can be really helpful, too. I recommend reaching out to parents that model the kind of open, curious conversations you’re looking to have with your child. Perhaps they can mentor you or offer some guidance. I also recommend the following online resource for parents and caregivers to explore:
American Academy of Pediatrics: www.healthychildren.org
Q: Can children really know or understand their sexual identity and orientation?
A: Yes. There's nothing magical that says that on your 18th birthday you suddenly know everything about your sexual and gender identities. Eighteen-year-olds are still learning, growing and developing. It’s important to respect and validate our kids and give them the place to explore these really complicated concepts of themselves and their identities as people. Our children’s self-esteem develops when they have a sense of safety, love, respect and belonging within their family.
It can be a hard thing for people of my generation to wrap their brains around, and so, thankfully, my own children keep teaching me how to. But, it's an important thing for us to learn how to do, because it's an important part of taking care of our kids.
Q: What is something people can start doing today to support children and members of the LGBTQIA+ community?
A: It's really important to stop making assumptions because it puts somebody in the position of either correcting you or just letting you sit and make that mistake. Here’s a few things to stop assuming today:
- Sexual orientation: For instance, it’s common to assume that if someone is female then they will have interest in boys. Stop assuming that. The process of “coming out” is a tough transition on children and adults, but it only exists because society assumes heterosexuality until someone is not.
- Children have heterosexual parents: Not every kid has a mom and dad. We have a wide range of different household dynamics and configurations. It’s important to make sure that our language matches that reality so that we’re not using language that implies that the only normal is the nuclear family.
- Pronouns: This can be tricky and it takes some practice but it's a great way to grow more brain cells as you practice. And it's a really nice way to convey an attitude of being open and affirming.