Now, imagine on top of this, you are also questioning your sexual orientation. You have noticed you're not attracted to the opposite sex in the same way as your peers. However, attraction to the opposite sex (heterosexuality) is the most commonly expressed sexual orientation in society, so what does that mean for you?
Sexual orientation (or sexual identity) refers to the enduring or evolving pattern of one's sexual, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to a particular sex. Commonly used terms to describe one's sexual orientation include, amongst others, heterosexual/straight, homosexual (gay, lesbian), bisexual, queer, asexual, and pansexual. The acronym LGBTIQA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Asexual, and others) incorporates sexual orientation, gender identity and intersexuality, and is often used to refer to sexual identities that differ from heterosexual. It is important to note that these "labels" do not rigidly or personally apply to everyone, and some would prefer to not use labels at all. Sexual orientation is diverse, and unique to the individual.
Living in a heteronormative society can accentuate a sense of difference when you do not identify as heterosexual. Feeling "different" is especially challenging during adolescence because this developmental stage prioritises social belonging and acceptance. The threat of judgment, ridicule, or rejection from others can be overwhelming for young people during this time, and can influence how they express their sexuality, if at all. Research has also found that non-heterosexual young people are more likely to experience mental health difficulties, such as anxiety and depression, compared to other young people (see this link for more information).
We want to ensure our young people feel supported as they learn about themselves and their emerging sexual identities. How we approach sexuality can have a lasting impact on their relationship with us, and their emotional wellbeing, so it makes sense to reflect and think about it.
It’s never too soon, or too late, to begin the conversation!
If you've been asking yourself "What should I say? What if I say the wrong thing? How do I approach my teen, if at all?", the following tips may help.
- Create an environment in which your teen feels loved, safe, and respected. Without this stable foundation, they may not feel comfortable opening up to you, or they may doubt your capacity to be emotionally supportive.
- Seek opportunities to discuss sexual orientation. For example, if something relevant arises in conversation or in the media (such as the same-sex marriage debate) talk about it. Ask about your teen's views one-on-one, or facilitate a respectful discussion as a family. Treat this as an opportunity to model and explore values of equality, openness, and appreciation of diversity. Make your stance clear: everyone has a right to experience love, and homophobic attitudes are not acceptable.
- It is not always about what is said, but what is NOT being said. Avoiding a conversation about sexuality or changing the subject when it arises, even for good intentions (i.e. you assume they don’t want to talk about it), can inadvertently send the message that it is "taboo", which can feed a sense of shame. Further, one conversation about sexuality is not enough; it is an ongoing, evolving conversation. Remain open and approachable.
- Do your research, but learn from your teen. Thanks to the Internet, there is endless information available if you wish to expand your knowledge, however at the end of the day, the only expert on your teen's experience is… them! Be gently inquisitive, and seek to learn from your teen by listening, asking questions, and clarifying your understanding.
- Express gratitude for openness. A fear of rejection or negative judgment can motivate kids to keep quiet about their sexuality. The sheer fact they have opened up to you is a good sign they feel emotionally safe and trust you. Affirm this! (for example, "Thank you for sharing this with me. It means so much that you trust me. I am always here to listen").
- Respect your teen’s privacy. Seek their permission before you choose to share information about their sexuality with others. Establish boundaries together (what they feel comfortable sharing, and who with, etc).
- Don't expect to get it "right" every time! Talking about sexuality with your teen might feel awkward or confronting, or might conflict with your beliefs. You might fumble. You might say or ask something that they disagree with — It’s OK! As long as you come from a place of love, respect, and non-judgment, the rest will work itself out.
- All this talk about sexuality… Don’t forget the other stuff! Sexuality is only one part of a person. Your teen has so many other aspects that make up who they are. Embrace their strengths, interests, passions, as well as their fears and insecurities… celebrate everything that makes them who they are, and express your love and pride.
- Do they need extra support? Support from loved ones is essential for your teen’s mental and emotional health. Encourage help-seeking behaviour by ensuring they have others they trust and can confide in (friends, family, a teacher, etc). Online services and apps are aplenty, and appeal to their age group (for example, Headspace.org.au or ReachOut.com). If you have concerns for their wellbeing and coping, seek the guidance of a mental health professional, such as a doctor, psychologist, or school counsellor.
- Ensure you have support too! Parents often get so caught up focusing on their kids' needs they forget to prioritise their own, but we need to ensure we are emotionally healthy too! For tailored support, speak to a mental health professional as suggested above, or check out the services and online information provided below.
- Q Life: QLife is Australia’s first nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTIQA+ people, offering peer supported telephone and web based services between 3:00pm and midnight every day of the week, all around the country. You can call them (between 3pm and midnight) on 1800 184 527 or chat online: https://qlife.org.au/
- BeyondBlue 'Families Like Mine' resource: 'Families like mine' is a multimedia guide that offers practical advice to families of young gender diverse people, same-sex attracted and bisexual people, and those who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/who-does-it-affect/lesbian-gay-bi-trans-and-intersex-lgbti-people/families-like-mine
- Kids Helpline: Kids Helpline is a free, private and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25. Kids can call on 1800 55 1800. Their website also has information for parents: https://kidshelpline.com.au/parents/