In the 1920s, Freudian psychology was in fashion. With provocative claims and bold statements, Freud had made himself an authority on human psychology and sexuality. With no scientific research, however, Freud guessed that homosexuality was a socialized phenomenon that stemmed from an overbearing mother and aloof father. That was a mistake with long term consequences.
Freud’s 1920s assertion made two assumptions about sexual orientation that have since been debunked: 1) sexual orientation is established through socialization (meaning through interactions with other humans) and 2) that parents influence sexual orientation more than any other human.
Thankfully, clinical psychologists applied the scientific method, allowing researchers to better understand where homosexuality comes from. But unfortunately, we still have to live with Freud’s guesses in our culture, particularly in Christian Churches.
Many religious institutions and parents use Sigmund Freud’s false notions to explain how homosexuality develops.. It’s an easy blame game. If LGBTQ+ children are disordered, then their parents must be neglectful, harsh or codependent, just to name a few. Do you see how Freud’s claims not only mischaracterize LGBTQ+ children, but also place unfounded blame on parents?
Peer reviewed research hasn’t trace the etiology (the cause) of homosexuality to socialization, parental input, or choice. Instead, researchers have linked (for access to this research, contact our office) sexuality to an in utero hormone bathing that occurs between weeks 6–12.
Why bring up this science? Telling the truth about sexuality’s origins helps us to dismantle the shame and fear that many parents carry simply because they have LGBTQ+ children.
Here are the three most common fears that I encounter in parents when their children come out of the closet:
1. I will be judged by my peers
Many parents, especially those closely tied to church families, worry what their friends, priests, and family will think. When you atribute homosexuality to poor parenting, acknowledging that a child is queer is like admitting to being an over-bearing or neglectful parent. For some parents, such a social admission inspires anger at the child. These parents often subconsciously feel that if they can shame or scare their child into being straight, they’ll save face. It is common to see these parents cling even tighter to their religious ideologies, which many times reinforces the separation between them and their children.
Parents who love and accept their children, however, are often ostracized from their churches and families. Because they align with their children more than their religious community, these parents confront a major fear: rejection. As a parent’s place with a social group comes into question, they often need guidance in being an ally to their children, but also grieving the loss of historic support systems for the sake of their children.
Working through the fear of rejection allows parents to recognize their own emotions about having a queer child. It gives them awareness and newfound stamina to make decisions that are best for their family, rather than succumb to fear-based, reactionary decisions.
2. What if I say or do something wrong?
Many parents ask, “Am I doing this right?” They’re fearful of saying something offensive or doing anything to counteract their loving intentions.
These parents understand that the coming out process and the LGBTQ+ community are highly evolved and utterly complex. Not only should you learn the specific language that your child uses to label themselves, but you should also survey the subtle ways that homophobia, transphobia, or biphobia may shape your preconceived notions of your LGBTQ+ child.
As a counselor, I help parents learn about their child’s story—how they discovered their sexual orientation. This process helps the child feel safe, and it helps parents gain confidence to approach their child’s reality. Parents can facilitate reparative conversations with questions like:
When did you know you were _______ ?
What did if feel like for you to carry this all by yourself?
What are the important things about your identity that you would like me to know?
I also find it incredibly helpful when parents and children to make a plan about how they will initiate challenging conversations. Doing so gives each party time to prepare and initiate boundaries that allow listening to happen without getting defensive.
3. Who is my child and who will they become?
The coming out process may feel like major whiplash for some parents. After years of dreaming and planning for their child’s future, many parents must grieve their hopes and dreams for their children.
Traditional grief will include acceptance, anger, bargaining, denial, and depression, all of which spring up like popcorn with no rhyme or reason. Grief is an important process, however. As with grief, no matter the context, we must let our hopes and dreams die so that we can open up to the life that is. Accepting reality, however, is no easy feat.
Of course, religious parents may have major concerns about their child’s life after death. They may want to express their fears to help their children make a well-informed decision. In my observations, these conversations can be highly inflammatory yet, at the same time, important for both the parents and their children as they make sense of their beliefs. I recommend approaching these conversations with a healthy dose of respect for your child’s spiritual and personal autonomy. Instead of trying to preach at your children, learn about what their belief systems look like. They may not be similar, but in all of religion it is very rare that two people will completely align. Honor this fact in your child’s self-determination. It may be hard, but it can be done.
The coming out process is challenging and nuanced for children, parents, and the family bond. Each child presents a unique set of circumstances, and every family will have their own communication challenges and sore spots. But the more you know about your child as a loving and caring parent, the better off you and your family can navigate the road toward health.