Now, imagine on top of all of this, you are also questioning your sexuality.
You've noticed you are not attracted to the opposite sex in the same way as your peers. Maybe you're not attracted to the opposite sex at all. Or both. Or neither. Given attraction to the opposite sex tends to be more common (emphasis on the word common here- do not mistake this to mean "more normal"), you might feel isolated, confused, ashamed, and fear rejection if you feel anything outside of this. Especially during adolescence, when social acceptance and a sense of belonging take priority.
The enduring or evolving pattern of one's sexual and romantic attraction to a particular sex is referred to as sexual orientation (or sexual identity). It is important to understand that commonly used categories of sexual orientation (heterosexual/straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual) do not rigidly apply to everyone. Sexual orientation exists on a spectrum, and is unique to the individual. Yes, it all sounds a bit complex, however the conversations you have with your teen don't need to be.
Many parents feel conflicted about what to do. What should I say? What if I say the wrong thing? How do I approach my teen, if at all?
How we approach sexuality can have a lasting impact on the emotional wellbeing of our kids, so it makes sense to reflect and think about it. And it’s never too soon, or too late, to begin the conversation.
Here are some key points to consider when talking with teens about sexual orientation:
- Don't assume that you "know". Remember, sexuality is unique to the individual. Seek to understand your teen's experience, rather than assuming you know based on your observations of their interests, peer group, or how they dress and behave.
- Do your research, but learn from your child. Knowing and understanding LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex or Queer) terminology can be helpful, but it is not as simple as assigning a "label". Not everyone personally connects with these terms. Notice the language your child uses, and use their words. Be aware that their language may change over time- roll with it!
- Thank them for sharing. A fear of rejection can motivate kids to keep quiet about their sexual orientation. The sheer fact that they have opened up to you is a good sign that they feel safe and trust you. Affirm this! For example: "Thank you for sharing something so personal with me. It means a lot to know that you trust me".
- When in doubt, talk it out! Again, don't assume you know what your teen wants. Ask what they do or don't feel comfortable sharing, and what they would find helpful from you. Establishing expectations and boundaries together can take out the stress of "guess work", trying to figure out what each other wants. Then you both know where you stand, and what you expect/need from one another. Check-in every once in a while to ensure these factors still stand.
- Remember it is not always about what is said, but what is NOT being said. Avoiding a conversation about sexuality or changing the subject if it arises, even for good intentions (i.e. you assume they don’t want to talk about it), can send a message that it must be hidden, which can feed a sense of shame. Further, one conversation about sexuality is not enough; it is an ongoing, evolving conversation. Take an interest, and remain approachable.
- Don't expect to get it "right" every time. Talking about sexuality with your teen might feel awkward, confronting, and 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!
- Respect your teen’s privacy. Seek their permission before you choose to share their sexuality with others.
- 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, talents, as well as their fears and insecurities… celebrate everything that makes them who they are.
- Do they need extra support? Support from loved ones is essential for your child’s mental and emotional health. Ask if they have others they can trust and confide in… friends, family, a teacher, etc. Encourage help-seeking behaviour, and assist with referrals to a health professional (such as a counsellor, psychologist) if they require extra support.
- Don't forget support for yourself! If you are finding it difficult to be approachable and accepting, seek the support of a professional. There is an abundance of information online and services to help guide you.
- Switchboard (Victoria): http://www.switchboard.org.au/
- Q Life: https://qlife.org.au/
- Kids Helpline: https://kidshelpline.com.au/parents/
- Headspace: https://headspace.org.au/friends-and-family/
Hilary is a psychologist at Hopscotch and Harmony who is passionate about supporting people of all ages, however has a particular interest in working with adolescents and adults. Hilary values diversity, and encourages individuals to celebrate their uniqueness- human difference is what makes life interesting! Hilary acknowledges the complex nature of sexuality, and is driven to support individuals with challenges arising from sexual diversity in a society that is largely heteronormative.