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Therapists working with LGBTQ kids share 5 common mistakes they see parents make

Show your child you support and accept them by avoiding these common mistakes.
/ Source: TODAY

With 2023 poised to set a new record in anti-LGBTQ legislation, as NBC News reported earlier this year, parents of LGBTQ kids have a lot to navigate right now. Still, mental health experts stress that there are surprisingly simple ways for parents of LGBTQ kids to make their home a safe and affirming environment.

And that starts with accepting your child's identity, Wayne Pearson, a psychotherapist working with adolescents and young adults at Boston-based LGBTQ health care organization Fenway Health, tells TODAY.com.

It can be scary for a child to come out to their parents, he says, "and if they're met with this idea of, 'You're going through a phase, I don't believe you,' I've never seen that really ending up in a positive way." 

Research from the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention in LGBTQ youth, shows that LGBTQ kids who grow up in supportive environments in which their identities are respected are significantly less likely to attempt suicide.

Marisol Garcia, a staff therapist who frequently works with queer children and families at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, suggests parents “encourage (their) child to explore their identity in the home by creating a safe space for them to try out some of these changes."

Let your child know you'd be willing to test out a new name or new pronouns at home and that they don't have to be 100% sure yet, Garcia tells TODAY.com. You can say something like, "Right now, we can see how it feels for you. This can be a place where you can explore that," she says.

The experts shared a few other ways parents can support their LGBTQ kids — especially right now.

Be curious, but never disrespect their boundaries.

It's good to be respectfully curious and open up discussions with your child about their identity, Garcia says, which might include asking them very direct questions.

"It's very important to understand, though, that if your child does not want to answer these questions, respecting the boundary is very key," she says. For instance, your child might be open to talking about their personal experiences or how they want to be identified, but not want to educate you on the queer experience or queer relationships in general, Garcia says.

“It’s not (your child’s) responsibility to keep you informed,” Garcia explains. “They can be one source of information for you — and a very important one,” she says, but for some topics, “Google is your friend.”

Resources like those from PFLAG (formerly Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) can be helpful for these questions and can also connect you to other parents and families navigating the same things, Pearson says.

Through this community, you "can see and hear parents' experiences," Pearson says. "This isn't always something that's openly talked about and the challenges that come with it, and knowing that you're not alone always feels really helpful."

If you make a mistake, don't make it about you.

"Affirming their identity by respecting their name and their pronouns is extremely important," Garcia says. "And it's a very easy way to communicate respect and understanding and love to them."

That means not deadnaming them or referring to them with incorrect pronouns. It also means that, if you make a mistake, you should acknowledge it, move on and do better next time rather than over-apologizing, Garcia says.

"Some people tend to be like, 'Oh, no, I'm so, so sorry. I messed up.' And that's kind of making it about you and your mistakes," she explains. That also "puts the burden on the kid" to reassure you that everything's fine, she says. "You have to take responsibility for your actions and what you did and then correct that in the future."

If you feel yourself getting defensive when corrected by your child, recognize that and learn to confront it, Garcia says. "Your kids are just learning how to communicate, so they might not know how to do it effectively," she adds.

But, for parents, it's essential to become "really comfortable with recognizing when you're wrong, learning how to apologize and being very open to their feedback," Garcia says.

“The best thing to do is to let your child know you’re not an expert,” Pearson says, and to recognize that it's normal for parents to learn from their kids. “I taught my parents about Tamogatchis,” he says, and now he hears regularly from his clients that they're teaching their parents about issues of privilege and gender.

"It's really powerful to hear that from your own kids," Pearson says. "It resonates with you on a different level than hearing it on TV." 

Be an advocate for your child, but not without talking to them first.

Being an advocate for your child is great, but it's also important to ask them what they want that to look like in practice because each child will be different. And what they want and need from you might change over time.

"Being the best advocate means asking your child what it is that they need," Pearson explains.

"Not every kid is going to want their parents to correct other people when they're not around," Garcia says. If they're in a more private stage of coming out, "don't out them," she says. "Don't go to other people and over-explain or over-share your child's identity if they're not ready for that."

In an effort to show your acceptance of your child, it may be tempting to go big. "Some parents tend to be overly supportive and overly excited," Garcia says. "But by doing that, you're really doing the opposite of normalizing (their identity)."

Affirming their identity doesn't have to mean "celebrating Pride month with a cake and rainbows and everything like that," Pearson says. Rather, it's more important to recognize that "my child may need me in a different capacity, and I want to show up for them in a way that makes them feel most valued and seen," he adds.

Figuring out what kind of support your child wants should be a collaborative conversation. Ask how they want you to show up for them — especially in situations when they're not around, Garcia says.

For instance, "many schools don't provide comprehensive sex education in general, and certainly not queer sex education," Garcia says. If no one is giving them that health information, then you may need to step in.

"This goes along with letting them consume queer media, having a community and having queer friends outside of what you're giving them in the home and what they're receiving at school," Garcia says.

Don't try to hide current events, but discuss them in an age-appropriate way.

Amid recent anti-LGBTQ legislation and rhetoric, it's natural for some kids to feel scared, threatened or anxious. A 2023 Trevor Project survey found that about one in three LGBTQ young people said they have poor mental health “most of the time or always” due to such bills and laws.

"The biggest thing that you can do is to talk very plainly and directly to your child about this," Garcia says. "There's no need to keep them in the dark." 

Parents shouldn't shy away from using plain, age-appropriate language to speak to their kids about the headlines they see. But parents should follow that up with a message of support and love, Garcia says: "Let them know that you are there to be their safe space, to be their protector and to be their parents."

Knowing LGBTQ children, teens and adults are disproportionately affected by mental health challenges and that this kind of rhetoric can have an impact on kids' mental health, it's a good idea for parents to be vigilant for signs of depression and anxiety, Garcia says.

Pearson also encourages parents to spread the message that their kids are "not to be feared," he says. "You're just like everyone else here on this planet, wanting to be respected and received."