By Tony Madril, MSW, BCD
No doubt adolescence is tough. And for teens growing-up in lesbian and gay households, it can be even tougher. Nevertheless, lesbian and gay parents who are aware of the particular challenges their teens are likely to face can respond with a set of interventions that are meaningful as they are practical. Delivered thoughtfully, these focused actions can help lesbian and gay parents ease the stress of a sometimes burdensome period of family life.
Lesbian and gay parents can expect that their teens will face some challenging issues related to their entry into adolescence. They might also expect the possibility of their teens encountering the social stigmas often associated with children who are raised within non-traditional families. Therefore, setting a foundation of sound preparation, support and instruction can enable lesbian and gay parents to increase positive developmental outcomes for their adolescent sons and daughters.
Who am I? Do I fit in? Will someone else love me besides my parents? Can I make it on my own? Am I straight or gay? These are just a few of the questions many teenagers will pose to themselves and others during the adolescent time of their lives. Discovering the answers to these questions is, in the simplest of terms, the winning goal every teenager must score before moving on to a fully integrated adult life.
In fact, every teenager is uniquely positioned to respond to various issues of personal growth and development. Adolescence is the very time for this. The following is a list of generally accepted principles of adolescence; identifiable tasks created to help explain what it is a teenager must address during this stage of their personal development:
- To achieve a new level of closeness and trust with peers,
- To gain independence from parents and to develop a new status within the family,
- To develop a sense of personal identity,
- To address issues of sexuality,
- To acquire a set of values and ethics to guide behavior, and
- To move toward autonomy in the world.
Accomplishment of these monumental tasks settles upon the teenager’s development of an unwavering sense of identity, a stable sense of who they are in relationship to the rest of the world. Once they accomplish this, they are better equipped to begin addressing what will be the responsibilities and freedoms of their adult lives.
For the teen being raised by lesbian or gay parents, this process may be complicated by a fear of discrimination brought about by social stigma. Although the body of research on the psychological well-being of children raised by lesbian and gay parents is favorable (it reports no notable differences between children raised by lesbian and gay parents and those raised by heterosexuals), some teens within this group choose to hide, delay or selectively disclose the details of their family’s gender characteristics. While doing so may elicit some temporary gain, such as allowing the teenager an adequate amount of time to “come out” to peers, it also suggests that some teens raised by lesbian and gay parents are struggling with coming out to peers about their families, on the one hand, and avoiding discrimination on the other.
How can lesbian and gay parents help their teenagers resolve this conflict? That is the question. Simply put, lesbian and gay parents can help by educating themselves about the number of practical tools available to them to counteract the effects of homophobia and discrimination. For example, the following table includes several things I recommend to parents who are worried about their child being teased about having “two mommies” or “two daddies.” These interventions were adapted from research studies on lesbian and gay parenting, and from my own clinical experience working with lesbian and gay families. Together, I refer to them as the “Tasks of Adolescence for Queer Parents.” They are simply practical ways that lesbian and gay parents can proactively guide their teenagers through the complexities of adolescence.
- Schedule time each week for you and your teen to talk and do fun things together.
- Model the use of active listening skills, such as summarizing what you heard your teen say. This is especially important to remember during times of conflict.
- Set the ground rule that your teen has permission to talk to you about anything without fear of consequence, as long as the information is not used inappropriately; to punish or manipulate, for example.
- Let your teen know that you are aware of the possibility that, at times, she may feel uncomfortable with the idea of disclosing particular information about the family. Let her know that this is “okay,” and that you would welcome hearing about these instances should they arise. This may help to increase the likelihood that your teen will use you as a resource for dealing with a number of issues, including how to manage social stigma
- As appropriate, include your teen in social settings in which your sexual orientation is affirmed by significant adults, straight and lesbian/gay alike. For example, you might introduce your teen to a straight colleague whom demonstrates strong support of lesbian and gay families. You could also invite your teen to have lunch with a group of your friends
- Create opportunities for your teen to have regular contact with other teenagers who are being raised by lesbian or gay parents, or whom live within other types of non-traditional families
- Engage your teen in the process of learning about racial and ethnic cultures and other groups of diversity different than your own
- Spend some time with your teen identifying various problematic situations that could arise, which are directly related to the family’s gender makeup. This may help them to prepare for, address and/or avoid stressful situations, which may occur outside of the home
- Engage your teen in a process of identifying and prioritizing the options and resources available to them to address these situations in the moment. Teach them to weigh the “pros and cons” of each potential decision as a means of increasing their ability to problem-solve
- Practice role playing how, in particular, your teen would go about applying these decision-making strategies to “real life” situations that involve discriminatory behavior
- As appropriate, ask your teen for his opinion about how you might go about solving some of your own mundane day-to-day problems, such as how to deal with a difficult co-worker. This will keep him in the practice of thinking strategically about the tools he can use to resolve interpersonal problems at moment’s notice
- If possible, consider coming out to your children during their childhood or late adolescent years. Because younger adolescents are often preoccupied with issues of their own emerging sexuality, early and middle adolescence, (generally accepted as ages 10 – 16) may be a particularly difficult time for them to learn about the sexual orientations of their parents
- Being out to others is generally correlated with a greater sense of psychological well-being. This also seems to be the case for lesbian and gay parents. If you are not out to the larger community, it may, therefore, be helpful to consider the implications of doing so. You would, of course want to consider the level of social stigma that exists in your community and the fact that there may be separate “pros and cons” of coming out for your children that do not exist for you
No doubt raising teenagers can be challenging for any parent. Nevertheless, lesbian and gay parents who are confronted with the vicarious effects of social stigma may, understandably, find the task even harder. At the same time, there are ways to help. First, lesbian and gay parents can equip themselves with an active awareness of the issues their child will need to address as they enter into a new realm of personal development. Second, lesbian and gay parents can study and apply various helping strategies and techniques to support their teens through the season of adolescence; including how to address the problem of social stigma should it arise.
In short, hope for healthy adolescent development for teenagers of lesbian and gay parents lies within the creation of a family environment in which communication is open and warm; parents make thoughtful and informed decisions about family matters; and teenagers are supported and taught effective coping strategies to prepare for and respond to the problem social stigma.
To learn more about social worker Tony Madril, please visit www.TonyMadrilTherapy.com.