How to help a teen questioning their sexuality

The moment a teen comes out to their parents can be confronting. Likewise, a young person who expresses they are questioning their sexual identity can also be confusing for parents.

Research tells us that young people are not limited by their age or perceived lack of maturity when they begin questioning their sexuality. On coming out, we know that 10% of young people have always known they were LGBTQIA+. 26% knew by the age of 10, and 60% by the age of 13.

So while we may still see teens as young or incapable of making these decisions, they are actually the ideal age to begin to healthily explore their identity.

When a young person builds up the courage to come out to their parents or guardians, we often see a variety of responses. Here are four common ones, and the pros and cons that come with each.

  • Total acceptance

When parents enforce their love and affirmation for the teen, making sure they know they are fully supported and can come to discuss sexuality with them at any time.

Pros: The teen builds trust with their parents, and comes to them for guidance and help as needed, irrespective of the outcome.

Cons: Parents who fundamentally disagree with varying forms of sexuality may feel this contradicts their values.

  • Minimising of the teen’s experience

This is often displayed in comments such as, ‘they are too young to know who they are’ or ‘they’re just going through a phase’.

Pros: None. The teen will keep questioning their sexuality and explore it outside of your care.

Cons: Strain on the parent/child relationship that could result in a permanent separation depending on the outcome of the teen’s questioning. The teen’s mental health may also suffer from lack of acceptance or support.

  • Free rein and/or over involvement

When the parent or guardian encourages the teen to explore their sexuality in a manner that gives them no boundaries, or tries to provoke conversation or exploration exclusively with them, taking away their independence.

Pros: The teen is well resourced and feels comfortable questioning their sexuality and coming to a conclusion.

Cons: The teen has no agency to determine what their sexuality is, or how to navigate this due to the over involvement of the parents. Or, they lack guidance so participate in unsafe or damaging behaviours.

  • Denial

This may occur when the parents have a belief system that does not accept homosexuality, or they are afraid of the public fallout for themselves or their child if they come out.

Pros: None. The teen will keep questioning their sexuality and explore it outside of your care, or will enter their own state of denial or supression, forcing this to resurface later in life.

Cons: Potential estrangement between family members, mental health issues and possible suicidal tendencies in the young person.

Parents and guardians can go between these responses, often grappling with how to protect their child, while trying to help them discover their identity. However, it is clear that some of these responses are far more damaging than others. Singh, Hays and Watson (2011) list coming out as one of the eight major risk factors when a young person identifies as LGBTQIA+. The loss of support from family and friends is also risk factor, making your response pivotal to your child’s health and wellbeing.

Given this, what is the best way to respond to your teen when they come out to you? You can begin this important and complex journey with them by following these steps:

1. Listen

Do not minimise their experiences or feelings. Remain open and keep eye contact so they feel valued and understood.

2. Affirm your support

Tell your child how much you love and care for them, and express pride for their bravery in communicating with you.

3. Ask what they need from you

Your teen may want a listening ear, someone to see a counsellor with or a way to see their doctor. Offer your help, but don’t force it on them.

4. Connect them with reputable resources as they explore their identity

Your teen is probably already discussing this with friends at school or researching it online. To give them a well-rounded understanding on their journey and a safe way to explore it, connect them with reputable resources such as headspacequeerspaceThe Trevor Project and the Rainbow Network.

5. Commit to supporting them as they discover their sexual identity, irrespective of the outcome

Your support will provide them with a stable foundation for a healthy, happy life. 

This blog was put together using the research of Bagley and Tremblay (2000), Queerspace Melbourne (2018), Iian Meyer (2003), Singh, Hays and Watson (2011).