The Mind Talk

The Mindtalk
LGTBQ teen illustration - raised hands holding rainbow hearts during Pride Month

One of the earliest conversations you may have had with your child may involve their declaration of their gender identity: they are a “boy” or a “girl”.

As some children grow, their identity and their attractions appear not as clear cut as the socialised norms they may have been exposed to.

In the US, about 10 percent of teens identify as LGBTQ+ – the acronym used to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and individuals. But more may be questioning their gender/sexuality. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive data for Hong Kong youth, perhaps because of perceived discrimination towards members of the LGBTQ+ community.

It is typical for teenagers to spend a lot of time trying to figure out who they are. Perhaps they don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, or feel attracted to people of the same sex, or feel no attraction to anyone.

What can you do when your child expresses they might be a member of the LGBTQ+ community to ensure a positive relationship between you both can endure?

Protecting your LGBTQ+ child’s mental health

Be accepting

You might wonder, “Is this just a phase?” Please don’t express this thought out loud. I would encourage you to embrace rather than dismiss your child’s sharing. For them, they might be just wondering about who they are; this version of their identity or sexual attraction may pass, but they will remember how you reacted.

One of the most loving actions a parent can provide to their child is the space to learn about thinking critically about who they are, and how they want to express themselves. Let your child know these explorations are OK. Encourage dialogue where you really listen.

There is nothing wrong with being LGBTQ+ – This is not a situation that needs to be fixed. If you find yourself hung up on your own non-acceptance, I encourage you to consider the future of your relationship and choose to take a pause rather than simply rebut your child’s perspective. When we explore rejection of parents by their adult children, research suggests gay adults find it extremely difficult to maintain relationships with parents who they perceive as rejecting of their identity. I implore you to explore your child’s decision to share information about their identity with you, as a crossroads to your future relationship. It may sound severe, but in reality, you may be choosing between your future relationship with your LGBTQ+ adult child, over no relationship with your imagined or preferred straight offspring.

This is especially important because research on LGBTQ+ mental health highlights this population is more susceptible to depression, anxiety, low self-worth, and loneliness compared to other teens. These are global trends, so we can assume youth in Hong Kong experiences mental health stressors as well. This is correlative, not causative. Regardless, you may fear for your child’s mental health safety. Having a supportive relationship at home has a protective effect for all teens, including those of the LGBTQ+ community. Blaming or shaming your child will likely exacerbate their negative mental health experiences.  Conversely acceptance and validation will ensure your child has an important adult in their life that they can lean on if they encounter mental health challenges.

From my perspective as a counsellor, I sometimes experience parents struggling with the concept of “dead naming”. If a teen identifies as transgender, non-binary, or gender queer, they may choose a new name, often one that is androgenous, to express their new identity. The act of changing one’s name to something that better represents them is usually seen as an empowering act for the LGBTQ+ teen. The name their parents gave to them then becomes “dead”; a part of the identity they wish to leave behind.

It can feel challenging to stop using the name that you attentively selected specifically for your child. Allow yourself some time, and grace to adjust. Discuss what the new name means to your teen. Try to understand their point of view. There have been cases in Hong Kong when parents learnt about the chosen name only after learning the child is using their new name, with support, at school. This indicates the importance of liaising closely with the school and considering the benefit of acceptance in this situation. Open and accepting conversations really help.

LGBTQ teen support - mother wearing a white t-shirt with a LGBTQ+ flag hugging teenager.

Be an ally and an advocate

You may, legitimately, worry your child may experience bullying. We know that whilst it looks like there is improving openness and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, we still have a lot of challenges to overcome. The 2021 GLSEN school climate survey which captures the experiences of LGBTQ+ teens at school highlight some troubling trends: Over 90% of LGBTQ+ teens experienced verbal abuse at school attached to the labels of being gay, transgender or LGBTQ+; 81.8% of teens felt unsafe at school, and over 78% considered avoiding school functions. It is important that parents of LGBTQ+ teens are in touch with their child’s school regularly so that if negative situations arise, they are ready to work with the school on an appropriate and collaborative response.

I encourage you to embrace your child’s journey, and even become an ally of the LGBTQ+ community. Demonstrate you are with your teen through your words and deeds. The teens I work with who have accepting parents speak of their parents’ adoption of an ally position very favourably. “My mum bought ALL the flags, and bought me a shirt that read, “I can’t even think straight,” recounted Rowan* (*not their real name). This helped Rowan feel accepted, even cherished by their parent. Sharing information about your child with others can be a collaborative process. Some of an older generation may hold onto traditional identity and sexual orientation prejudices. Talk to your child about how they would like you to communicate about them with broader family members. They might like you to be their spokesperson, or maybe prefer to talk for themselves. Teens sometimes do not appreciate being “outed” to family members.

Advocate for your child. Help schools establish gay-straight alliances. Push the school to provide more inclusive sex education, rather than the hetro-normative model that is pervasively taught. Rowan, who is attracted to women, retells, “Sex education at school was very weird for me”.

As parent-allies we can represent the community of our children in the workplace and in greater society. When we demand greater acceptance and representation for the LGBTQ+ community, we protect more children tomorrow.

Photo Credits:
First image: Istock pc: Nadila Lapshynska
Second image: Istock pc: Maartinedoucet 

References

H. F., & Sungin, C.J. (2014) Gay and Lesbian students: Understanding their needs. Routledge.

Gnan, G. H., Rahman, Q., Ussher, G., Baker, D., West, E., & Rimes, K. A. (2019). General and LGBTQ-specific factors associated with mental health and suicide risk among LGBTQ students. Journal of Youth Studies, 22(10), 1393–1408. https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2019.1581361

Lehman, J.R.; Diaz, K; Ng, H; Petty, E.M.; Thatikunta, M; & Echstrand, K. (2020). The equal curriculum: the student and educator guide to LGBTQ Health. Springer Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-24025-7

Sadac, A. (2021). Parenting your LGBTQ+ teen: A guide to supporting, empowering and connecting with your child. Rockridge press.

GLSEN. (2021). National School Climate Survey 2021.
https://www.glsen.org/research/2021-national-school-climate-survey.

Angela Watkins, Hong Kong Counsellor

Angela Watkins

About the author

The Head Counsellor at Red Door Counselling in Hong Kong, Angela Watkins works with teens, adults, couples, and families on a variety of mental health issues including identity, relationship issues, recovery from trauma, stubborn depression, anxiety, self-harm, co-dependency, marital split, and neurodiversity. 

The team at Red Door are committed to providing a gender affirming, LGBTQ+ supportive environment to clients seeking mental health support.

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