A situation like this requires a very careful response. Argument won’t accomplish anything. At the same time, love won’t permit you to “let it go.” You’re going to have to work through the situation in one way or another.
Before attempting to provide you with some guidance in that regard, we want to assure you of our prayer support. We understand the pain and confusion you’re experiencing. The emotional ups and downs you describe are normal and to be expected under the circumstances. Don’t beat yourself up, and don’t assume responsibility for your son’s feelings and any decisions he’s made as an autonomous young adult. He’s old enough to be his own person now, and a burden of debilitating or false guilt will only hinder you from showing him God’s love in the most effective way.
There’s only one respectful and productive way to respond to the difficult news your son has given your family: you have to do it in the most cool-headed and non-reactive manner possible. If things have already degenerated into 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. It’s vital to bring your calmest, best self to the discussion table if you want to handle the situation constructively. 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. You can start by getting the support you need. Talk to a pastor, a professional counselor, a mentor, or a small group of understanding friends before moving ahead.
Don’t be surprised if you feel shaken or compelled to question or examine your own beliefs on the subject of homosexuality in the light of this experience. 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.
Throughout this process, it’s especially 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 engage the assistance of a trained marriage therapist.
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 the time seems right, ask your son if he’d be willing to sit down with the two of you for a heart-to-heart talk. 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. Affirm your son and utilize first-person words – “I” and “we” – as much as possible (“you-based” language easily comes across as controlling, directive, blaming, shaming, scolding, or self-righteous). You might 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 to 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. One of the most difficult hurdles for many parents is coming to terms with God’s goodness and His permissive will – that He allows people, even His own children, to go their own way.
Much depends upon the attitude with which your son has chosen to voice his thoughts on the subject of his sexual orientation. Does he seem to be struggling, sorrowful, ashamed, hesitant, or confused? If so, try to be sensitive and gentle in the way you respond. If, on the other hand, he has adopted a harsh or confrontational tone, you may need to be firm and set clear boundaries for appropriate communication even while expressing your compassion. 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” and urge your son to do the same. You can do this by asking some carefully worded questions. Listen closely to the answers you receive. Either you or your spouse can 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 you a few questions?” These questions should be 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?
You will probably be in “discovery mode” for an extended period of time. It may last for weeks, maybe even several 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 discuss the situation with you and an objective third party, such as a pastor or a trained Christian counselor. Take steps to ensure that this person is 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 aggravate the conflicting emotions he may be experiencing. This, in turn, will only increase the likelihood of a heated disagreement.
The next time you have a talk, 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 facing big life issues – like determining a career direction, 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 absolute need to foreclose on a label for yourself by calling yourself ‘gay,’ ‘bi,’ ‘trans,’ or anything else. You owe it to yourself to shut out 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. This means encouraging your son to talk openly about the feelings, wants, hopes, and fears he’s going through without assigning them to any specific category (“gay” or “straight”). You should also caution him against sexual experimentation or headlong relational commitments as the method or measure of determining what he wants in life or how to proceed. 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. 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. 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.”
If your son is still living with you, let him know that you are personally committed to what you regard as biblical standards of sexual morality. Make it clear that you will be expecting him to honor and abide by those standards – if only out of respect for you – as long as he remains under your roof. It might be helpful to include this stipulation as part of a formal shared-living arrangement. Explain that while you consider him a full-fledged adult, you also have a responsibility to maintain certain rules and boundaries within your own household, and that this may require the two of you to review periodically what sort of living arrangement might be most conducive to the preservation of workable and loving relationships in the family. Don’t fuss or argue. Just help him to understand that the choice of his conduct is his to make and that you are not looking for reasons to “kick him out.”
Meanwhile, depending on your circumstances, it may be prudent to speak with the other members of the immediate family. In some scenarios this will be unavoidable. Whatever the case, you will want to discuss the matter using the same calm and reasoned approach that you have with your son. 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. Use age-appropriate language to explain that their older brother is going through a difficult time. Details 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. 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. Call us for a free consultation.
If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.
Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children (Allison Bottke)
Homosexuality (resource list)
Desert Stream Ministries