Healthy parental responses to a child coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender cannot be reduced to a one-size-fits-all formula, said one of the nation’s leading Christian counselors and scholars focused on sexual identity.
“There is no one family journey. There is no singular journey that I could say, ‘Here is what everybody goes through.’ There’s just so much variation in how families navigate that terrain,” said Mark Yarhouse, a counselor and professor of psychology at Wheaton College.
He spoke during a presentation titled after a forthcoming book he co-authored, When Children Come Out: A Guide for Christian Parents.
Yarhouse leads the Sexual and Gender Identity Institute at Wheaton and is the author of numerous other books, including Homosexuality and the Christian, Listening to Sexual Minorities and Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture.
His March 24 talk kicked off a new online lecture series hosted by Embracing the Journey, a Georgia-based ministry launched by and for Christian parents and families who have children who identify as LGBTQ.
Embracing the Journey is designed to build bridges between gay, lesbian and transgender individuals, their families and the church, ministry co-founder Greg McDonald said in introducing Yarhouse to more than 500 viewers from 42 states and eight nations who attended the online session.
“It’s not about telling people what to believe — the Holy Spirit does that — but informing folks that … you can love your child well and lean into your faith at the same time,” he said.
But one reason that can be such a challenging effort, Yarhouse explained, is that a child’s coming out can happen in so many different ways. Sometimes a son or daughter informs parents directly about their sexual identity. In other cases, a third party may disclose the information, while in still other cases the development is gleaned through social media.
“It sets in motion conversations that can be very different based on how you find out about it,” he said.
There’s also a difference between a parent learning a child is gay and learning they identity as a different gender and may want to transition.
Because each approach evokes different “situational stressors,” parents should try to avoid comparing their family’s experience with others, Yarhouse advised.
Responses are further complicated because the parents and child are each trying to discern what the newly revealed sexual or gender identity means to them as individuals and in relation to each other, he continued. “There are parallel journeys with the child navigating and the parents navigating how they make sense of sexuality and search for meaning.”
The process can be especially daunting for parents trying to square a child’s sexual orientation with their own Christian worldview, including their understanding of Scripture and how their relationships with God and church may be influenced, he said.
Parents frequently experience the situation through the lens of grief as relationships with friends and extended family can be strained, or from worrying they may never become grandparents. But Yarhouse said the loss often is hard to define. “This is a little bit more vague, and sometimes the ambiguity makes it harder. It can be hard to name and harder to work through.”
Yarhouse adamantly dismissed any connection between parenting and the sexual orientation or gender identity of their children.
And then there are additional levels of stress as parents working through theological and relational hurdles in the home also worry about the emotional, physical and spiritual health of a child who may face harassment at school, online or other settings, he said. “A lot of parents struggle with blaming themselves. In some cases, they go to other resources — sometimes Christian resources — and they may pick up this idea that they caused their child to be transgender or to cause their child to be gay. Sometimes they hear something from other Christians in leadership that kind of implicates the parents.”
Yarhouse adamantly dismissed any connection between parenting and the sexual orientation or gender identity of their children: “There is no evidence of that.”
He warned parents that anger and conflict between spouses and between their children often increase initially when a son or daughter comes out. “This is a spike you can anticipate, but we are seeing that it improves over time.”
A downward trend in emotional connection and engagement is another initial trend that affects families in these situations. But it, too, generally improves over time, Yarhouse said.
Whatever they are feeling, parents should try to keep as many doors open with their child as possible while simultaneously seeking help from reading, counselors, parent small groups, podcasts and other outlets. It’s also important to maintain self-care practices such as exercise, good sleep and healthy eating, he advised. “Try to maintain the relationship while trying to get your bearings.”
Parents should try to avoid holding out hope that their child’s coming out is temporary, he added. “It’s not uncommon for parents to see this maybe as a phase their loved one is going through, that it will kind of resolve or go away. Most times, that is not what is happening.”
Yarhouse said he’s seen many parents become closer to God from these experiences, although he also acknowledged that seems hard to believe for parents early in the process. “That might not be where you are tonight. God might feel distant. You might have a lot of questions for God.”
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