Supporting families who are struggling with their child’s identity

There is a critical role between family acceptance or rejection, coupled with earlier ages of coming out – that call for a paradigm shift to serve LGBTQ children and adolescents in the context of their families.

The Family Acceptance Project

Families who are struggling with their child or youth’s identity need help to deal with the concerns as a strategy to avoid the outright rejection that brings so many LGBTQ children and youth into care. The necessary principles and core assumptions about families begin from an understanding that families want their children to do well. 

One of the most important levers for change for the child welfare sector is the ongoing engagement with families and caregivers to:[Ryan, C. (2014) A Practitioner’s Resource Guide: Helping Families to Support Their LGBT Children. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration.]

  • make connections by meeting them ‘where they are’
  • view each family as an ally
  • provide accurate information on sexual orientation and gender identity
  • give families respectful language to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity
  • let parents and caregivers tell their story
  • make appropriate referrals and connections with supports in the community
  • educate on the health impacts of family ambivalence and rejection
  • educate on how supportive and accepting behaviours have positive impact

The overall objective in helping families learn to support their LGBTQ children is not to change their values or deeply-held beliefs. Instead, the aim is to meet parents and caregivers ‘where they are’ to build an alliance to support their child and to help them understand that family rejection causes serious health and social consequences. 

Having a Conversation with an LGBTQ Child or Youth

There are a number of considerations when the opportunity to have a one-to-one conversation with an LGBTQ child or youth arises.

  • Never assume that a child/youth in care is straight or gender conforming based on dress or behaviour.
  • Young people are still learning who they are and may not have a label for their sense of identity. Support their choices of expression.
  • Remember that they are young people who may not understand gender issues. They are not experts on how they are developing or questioning gender.
  • Many children and youth have never heard anything positive about being LGBTQ. You may be the first person to tell them they are normal and healthy.
  • It is best to ask respectful questions and to be clear that you want to understand so that you can support the child or youth in all the ways that they need.
  • Take care not to ‘out’ a youth without their permission. Allow the young person to set the pace of ‘coming out’ if that is what they want.
  • Remember that sexual orientation is different from gender identity and is different from the sex you are born. A young person who identifies as LGB may be sexually active with a person of any gender, or may not be sexually active at all. Offer information and resources relevant to their needs, not their identity.
  • Encourage patience for the process of self-exploration. It takes time and courage to allow a true self to form.
  • Be a connector. Children and youth need information, access to other LGBTQ people of all ages.

In 2015, only 10% of CAS staff surveyed had received training on how to support families struggling to accept their LGBTQ child.

MCYS 2015 Survey

Asking Questions Respectfully

Data collection is an important aspect of understanding and meeting the needs of young people in care. However, in daily interactions with young people, teachers, program staff and service providers should allow for self-disclosure. Youth will disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to staff when, and if, they feel ready. Services providers should not directly ask youth if they are LGBTQ.[Child Welfare League of America & Lambda Legal (2006). Out of the Margins. A Report on Regional Listening Forums Highlighting the Experiences of LGBTQ Youth in Care.]

Nevertheless, there are some circumstances when it is appropriate for staff to provide the opportunity for youth to disclose their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Often, this will be raised when discussing the need for residential and/or foster care placement options and medical and/or community supports. This information may also prove relevant to decisions regarding educational services, reunification and placement.

Further Reading & Resources