Advice For Parents Struggling With A Child's Homosexuality
By James E. Phelan, LCSW, BCD, Psy.D
There is much testimonial data written by people with prior same-sex attraction (SSA) symptoms that tells about their family constellations and attributes their SSA to those factors. While the causal theme they offer is usually a familial one, people with SSA also link their symptoms to influences such as their own faulty perceptions and behaviors, and sexual abuse by peers, siblings, or others. Some have even gone on record to say that they had always sensed something missing or "void" inside themselves, for a variety of reasons, when they were children.
Some of their parents, they thought, had tried too hard to love them and they it felt smothering; some of their parents retreated to their own preoccupations; others were unable to bond with their child due to their own health problems or other hardships such as divorce; some parents attempted to forge a strong sense of bonding with their child, but throughout the child's growth years, the child somehow resisted or protested their bond.
It is not uncommon for parents of homosexuals to blame themselves for these outcomes, and though this is unproductive, they continue to badger and over-analyze themselves and their faults. Many have beaten themselves up. Others have given up and resolved to "disown" their child or to "forget" them. Some try to "pray it away," while others resort to over-involvement in activities or engage in other distractions.
It is especially hard for a parent to understand a child when the child is active in the gay lifestyle. It is equally hard when the parents know that freedom from SSA is possible, but yet, their child will not seek that option. When people are "gay-identified," meaning they have accepted the premises of gay activism, there is a sense of loss to their parents. It is very painful when the child ignores them, and retreats or rages against them. What advice is there for those parents whose child has SSA or is gay-identified? How can they put aside their dislike of the behavior and still have hope of a loving and productive relationship with their children?
The following are tips parents can use to help them through their struggle with a child who has SSA or is gay-identified:
Do not get defensive or angry when your child says, "I'm gay." This only fuels the fire. Realize that some children go through stages of self-doubt about their sexuality. Some go though experimental stages and sexual fluidity. While you may not condone your child's behavior, getting in his face about it will only confuse him more and push you further away from him.
Do not blame yourself for your child's homosexuality. Some children struggle with same-sex attraction, which is not necessarily due to familial influence, per se, as in the case of someone who has been sexually abused and habituated into same-sex behavior. One SSA boy interviewed said, "Well, I must be gay. Why would that priest have picked me to [molest]?" A woman explained, "I vowed never to trust men after I was [molested]," and concluded that, "women [for sex], were much safer for me." If your same-sex attracted child tells you it's your fault, ask them why they feel that way. If they say you were over-intimidating and intrusive, give them some insight into why you may have been that way. If you had ever physically or emotionally abandoned them, explain to them your reasons. You are human, too.
Tell them you wanted the best for them, despite your own shortcomings. Remember, it's not up to you to convince them of anything. Your healing can come from forgiving yourself for any misperceptions they may have about you. Your child's healing may come from confronting you or working through the past with a therapist. At any rate, do not take offense.
Take any criticism constructively. Learn from it. If you don't agree, agree to disagree, but don't let it continue to put a wedge between you. Ask for forgiveness, whether or not your actions were real or perceived.
Be prepared to listen to their feelings and thoughts. Be prepared if they don't want to talk. There are some good primers to help you in this area. NARTH has many good referral resources that can help.
Get professional advice prior to engaging your child about these issues. Many NARTH-based therapists can guide parents to learning more about what their child is facing and how they can respond.
Get peer support. Join or establish a support group for parents that are in the same boat. Support from others can bring listening, weeping, prayer - and most importantly, the acknowledgment that you are not alone. Groups such as JONAH and PFOX can be helpful (See support page).
Be at peace with yourself. Forgive yourself and others for past mistakes. Take care of yourself through good diet, sleep, meditation, prayer or progressive relaxation.
Focus your energy on loving the child, being there, and being sincere. Children can pick up on patronizing behavior. Keep your emotions in check.
You might sense something's wrong, but don't know what to say. Tell them that you sense some distance, that something may not be right between you, and that you want to know what's wrong and that you want to repair any brokenness that may be either real or perceived. Listen unconditionally.
Get involved, place a warm hand on their shoulders, or give them a hug. Tell them you love them. Remember, showing them love does not condone their behavior.
Remember, they control their behavior - not you. This is one of the hardest lessons for parents to learn.
Don't let your conversations be all negative. Never lecture. Avoid legalism, by which I mean lecturing the child and telling him that he is wrong and you are right. Talk about their strengths; emphasize how we are all human.
Holidays can be difficult, especially if your child refuses to participate. If this happens, don't forsake the holidays, but spend them as they are intended. Do this for yourself and for your beliefs and peace.
Learn to let go of any guilt. Once you have done your part, allow them the opportunity to come through. Letting go means letting something that is greater and higher than you take control of the situation. The first step in recovery is to accept that we are "powerless."
Another step is changing what we can change, and accepting what we can't.
A child who decides to be freed from homosexuality must be assured that help is available. A NARTH-based therapist can help. Some individuals benefit from self-help ex-gay groups which can be secular or of various religious denominations. Remember, they must want the change; you cannot superimpose it on to them. Be patient, change takes a lot of time. Conjoint therapy may be helpful to assist with family reconstruction when the timing is right.
Individual work for the parent and for the child is important since the dynamics are different. Workshops, psychodrama, Gestalt-based therapies, experiential weekends dealing with deepening gender identity such as Journey into Manhood, New Warriors, Woman Within International can be helpful. Love, Sex & Intimacy Seminars given by the International Healing Foundation (IHF) offer deep inner child work (re-parenting) and are very helpful in the healing grief and shame issues. IHF also has a 21-Step treatment plan for parents who have children dealing with same-sex attraction.
And finally, never give up your belief that change and freedom is possible - It is!
Jim Phelan is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker as well as a Certified Addictions Counselor.
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