What can we say to our teenage son who has just announced to us that he's gay? I'm devastated by this revelation. At some moments I'm so angry I could scream. Other times I just sit and cry. We love our son, but we don't want this kind of influence in our home (we have younger kids in the house). Should we try to fight it out with him? Or should we just accept his choice of lifestyle and proceed as if nothing has happened or changed?
You certainly don't want to fight, and you can't simply "proceed as if nothing has happened." A situation like this requires a rational, measured response. Somehow or other you're going to have to take steps work through it. But before suggesting some ways to do that, we want you to know that our hearts go out to you and our prayers are with you in the midst of your pain and confusion. The firestorm of conflicting emotions you're experiencing – crying one moment, angry the next – is a common and understandable reaction from a concerned and loving parent in your position. So don't blame yourself for having strong emotions – it's wise of you to ask for counsel about how to handle these feelings productively and we commend you for seeking input on what to do next.
How should you respond to this information your son has told you? There's only one way to answer that question: respectfully and in the most cool-headed and non-reactive manner possible. If you've already had a blow-up with him – if there's been shouting, manipulating or shaming one another – you may need to ask for forgiveness and request the opportunity to start over on a different footing. To the extent you are able, resolve with your son to refrain from this sort of hurtful and unproductive posturing; it goes nowhere and only leaves lasting distance between the two of you. Very little will be accomplished unless you bring your calmest, best self to the discussion table. Bear in mind that you only control your choices and actions, not the other individual, and that the bulk of your energy should be focused on yourself, not others. Do your part to interact well, emulating Christ's character, and let that be what guides your attitude and approach. That will probably mean rounding up some support for yourself – from a pastor, a professional counselor, a mentor, or a small group of understanding friends – before moving ahead. It's also vital to get on the same page with your spouse. The two of you can't tackle a problem like this in the best manner possible if you're not united in your approach. To this end, you may want to seek out a trained marriage therapist.
As a parent, you may feel shaken or compelled to question or re-examine your own beliefs on the subject of homosexuality in the light of this experience. This is okay. A review of your own understandings and convictions is normal, and even wise, as you think about how you are called by the Lord to proceed. Honest questioning can actually serve to confirm and solidify your convictions as well as correct possible attitudes, language or assumptions that may be missing the mark of Christian love – or that are simply not yet informed on this complex and hotly debated topic. All of this examination, however, is only true and beneficial if you're very careful to conduct your investigations in the light of God's truth and with the help of caring Christian friends. Be careful to consult well-informed sources who seek and honor the full counsel of Scripture. We hope our compilation of links below might help in this regard.
At this early stage it may also be good to take a step back and acknowledge to your son the difficult array of emotions you're feeling. You might say something like, "This is obviously something you've been pondering for a while, but you have to understand that we've just heard about it for the first time. Quite frankly, it's thrown us into a tailspin. Can we take some time to reflect on what you've shared before talking further?" When you feel ready to proceed, ask your son if he'd be willing to sit down and talk with you and your spouse about the way he sees himself and the news he's shared. As the dialogue begins, set your sights on two overarching goals: number one, to maintain your relationship with your son; and number two, to maintain a godly influence in his life.
Take the initiative by affirming your son. Make a sincere effort to connect with him at the heart level. In the process, stay unified as a couple in your attempts to address the situation – it's important to demonstrate that the two of you are on the same page. As the conversation moves forward, make a conscious effort to use first-person words – "I" and "we" – instead of "you-based" language, which can easily be heard as controlling, directive, blaming, shaming, scolding, or self-righteous. Say something like, "We're glad you've shared this with us. We would rather know what you're going through than not know what you're going through, so we're pleased that you've chosen to talk with us about this issue. We want to be there for you no matter what happens." Assure him of your love – your continuing, unconditional love – but remind him that loving unconditionally does not mean loving without concern or that you will always agree. God loves us unconditionally, but He also cares deeply about what we do, what we say, and how we view ourselves.
Naturally, a great deal depends upon the attitude with which your son has chosen to voice his thoughts on the subject of his sexual attractions. Does he seem hesitant or confused? Is he struggling, sorrowful, or ashamed? Or has he on the contrary confronted you with an uncompromising or even defiant declaration of willful self-intent? In the first instance you will want to be especially sensitive and gentle. The second scenario may require a firmer, though still compassionate, response. In either case, the overarching goals of maintaining the relationship and maintaining godly influence remain paramount. In practical terms, this will involve affirming, connecting, and reassuring him of your love over and over again.
Make a conscious choice to approach the matter in a "discovery mode." Urge your son to do the same. You and your spouse may find it useful to learn about his thinking and experience by asking some carefully worded questions and listening closely to his answers. Preface this part of the dialogue by saying, "Because you matter so much to us, we want to understand as much as we can about what you're experiencing. Is it okay if we ask a few questions?" Once you get the go-ahead, move forward by posing open-ended "essay-type" queries such as the following:
- What led you to believe that you might be gay?
- Have you ever experienced feelings of attraction to the opposite sex?
- When did you first become aware of your attraction to others of the same sex?
- What was your initial reaction to those feelings?
- How persistent are these attractions? Have you talked with anyone about them?
Both you and your son should realize that you will probably be in "discovery mode" for an extended period of time – weeks, perhaps, maybe even months. Thinking that you will be able to rush to resolutions or must have immediate conclusions over the matter may not only be unrealistic; it could push your son away and compromise your overarching goals.
It might also be a good idea to ask him if he would be willing to sit down with you and an objective third party – preferably a trained Christian counselor – as the situation unfolds and the conversation proceeds. If you choose to go this route, make sure that the counselor not only fully adheres to a biblical sexual ethic, but is also compassionate, understanding, and experienced in the area of same-sex attractions. It's vital that your son have a safe place in which to air his thoughts and safe people to whom he can open his mind – people who will not shame him for questioning his sexuality. Feelings of shame will only increase defensiveness or add to feelings of self-loathing or depression that sometimes come with this struggle.
The next time you sit down together, begin by reminding your son of the principle you've already established: "loving unconditionally does not mean loving without concern." On the basis of this understanding, let him know that you'd like to make a request. Say something like, "We know we can't control you, but we've learned from experience that it's always a good idea to go slow when making big life decisions – like selecting a college major, for instance, or choosing a marriage partner. That's especially true where your sexuality and personal identity are concerned. With that in mind, we want to recommend that you hit the 'pause button' before putting a label on the feelings you've been experiencing. There's no need to jump to conclusions by calling yourself 'gay,' 'bi,' 'trans,' or anything else at this point in time. You owe it to yourself to shut out all the cultural and political noise on this subject and take a close and careful look at your options. After all, many people have felt same-sex attractions without adopting the 'gay' label."
In this connection, stress the importance of adopting a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach. In other words, invite him to talk it out rather than act it out. Encourage him to openly express the feelings, wants, hopes, and fears he's going through without assigning them to any specific category ("gay" or "straight"). In particular, caution him against sexual experimentation as a method of determining his orientation. Point out that experimentation, like labeling, tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Although he may feel he's not in a position to honor your suggestions, or may simply choose not to, be aware that your goal is not to force compliance or to "change" him. By sharing your heart and what you believe to be wise, you are merely planting seeds for future thought and establishing the groundwork for clear and reasonable, and loving communication.
A final important consideration is that of your son's personal belief system and faith-commitment. Does he consider himself to be a Christian? It should be obvious that the answer to this question will have a significant impact upon the nature of your conversations with him. If he does think of himself as a believer, urge him to examine his faith convictions with great care and to give them priority over every other consideration. Make it clear that, as far as you are concerned, it would be wise to give greater weight to biblical values than to feelings of attraction. Underscore the thought that attraction, behavior, and identity are three separate areas; that one need not be determined by the others; and that behavior and identity, unlike attraction, are matters of conscious, willful choice. Stress the point that, as God's beloved and as a son loved under your care, he is expected to conduct himself according to the standards of Christian sexual morality no matter what particular temptation or identity questions he may be going through. End by saying, "We want you to know that we will be reading and learning about this topic because we care about you. If you're willing, maybe we could read and learn together."
Meanwhile, depending on the circumstances, it may be prudent to speak with other members of the family. Keep in mind, however, that in many instances it's advisable to refrain from extensive sharing until you have a well-established alliance and framework for relating to your son. There is no need to add more stress to an already fragile situation in these initial junctures, particularly if your son has not yet broadly or directly disclosed the matter himself. If he is going public, however, and you happen to have younger siblings under your care, it's best that you be the first person to talk with them rather than others revealing information in potentially destructive ways. Using age-appropriate language where necessary, explain to the younger kids that their older brother is going through a difficult time. Details about the issue being sexual in nature should be made available only on a need-to-know basis. Acknowledge and empathize with your children's emotional reactions to the situation, remembering that each one of them may need help sorting out his or her feelings. Make it clear that while you remain committed to biblical standards of morality, you cannot possibly stop loving your son. Whatever the level of disclosure that's necessary, ask the other kids to join you in your efforts to treat him with love and respect and in praying for him.
In closing, we can't overemphasize the importance of enlisting the help of a professional counselor. Here at Focus on the Family we have a staff of trained family therapists available to provide you with sound advice and practical assistance over the phone. If you'd like to speak with one of them, call us for a free consultation.
Homosexuality (resource list)
Desert Stream Ministries