How to Be Protective When Your Son Thinks He is Gay
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
In the wake of recent suicides of young gay boys, parents are seeking help regarding how to protect their children. How parents respond to their teens can have significant impact in helping to insulate them from outside stressors and offer a safe haven to seek help.
Lucas’ dad found a text message on his son’s phone to a boy from school confirming their hook up for “man sex.” Previously, he had gone into his son’s room and found Lucas, 16, quickly covering his computer screen. Without much struggle, Lucas showed him a male porn site.
Lucas’ parents admitted they didn’t want their son to be gay and tried to convince him otherwise. His dad initially resisted the idea of letting Lucas know that he’d love and accept him no matter what, fearful this would be giving him “permission” to be gay and encourage him. Lucas knew he was disappointing his parents - they couldn’t handle him being gay. He confided that his dad became furious and tearful when he saw the text. Lucas reassured his dad - telling him he was just confused.
In therapy, Lucas revealed having been secretly attracted to boys for years. He claimed he’d never acted on his “crushes” - never consummating anything sexual with another boy. In this case, the other boy approached him persistently. Lucas noted that, although he was attracted to boys, he wasn’t attracted to this boy but capitulated - hoping this experience would help him discover whether or not he was gay. He said he was actually relieved when his father ‘busted” him so he wouldn’t have to go through with it.
Lucas, isolated and confused as a young teen, used pornography for distraction and relief from painful feelings. He later used it to test himself to determine his sexual identity. Lucas’ compulsive use of gay pornography sexualized being gay - creating an association between being gay and images depicted in gay porn. A vicious cycle of over-stimulation ensued - reinforcing arousal and pornographic male imagery, and creating distortions about what it means to be gay. Ultimately these factors - and Lucas’ need to test out whether he was gay - led him to rationalize his plan to go through with a random, unwanted sexual encounter to see how he’d respond.
Ironically, in trying to find out who he was, Lucas betrayed himself and, in a style familiar to him from the dynamic with his parents, accommodated to what someone else needed from him. Lucas was unable to say no, acquiescing to sex before he was ready - with someone he didn’t like and with whom he didn’t feel safe.
Lucas was preoccupied with his parents’ disapproval - pretending he didn’t care but torn inside about who he was. As long as Lucas’ parents’ emotional equilibrium and acceptance of him was contingent on Lucas being straight, they would hijack their son’s ability to know and accept himself and, instead, force him to react to their conflict. Lucas felt pressured to both resist and conform to what he perceived his parents needed him to be. This internal conflict and pressure was part of what drove Lucas to break out and (unconsciously) set himself up to be caught in a bold act which shattered his parents’ view of him, shocking them into facing their worst fears, and putting a stop to his out-of-control spiral.
In the midst of all the ensuing chaos, important issues were overlooked - Lucas’ safety, state-of-mind, and well being. Protecting teens involves creating a collaborative (vs. authoritarian, punitive) effort to establish guidelines for behavior and decisions, and appropriate external controls.
Teens are vulnerable in terms of brain and social development. It’s harder for them to resist impulses and make self-protective decisions. Being self-protective also requires being educated about relationships including power dynamics and sexual victimization, the difference between sex and intimacy, and one’s right to make choices, and delay taking action.
Parents don’t have the power to influence whether children are gay but do have the power to influence how children feel about themselves. A close relationship with parents has been found to provide the best insulation from dangers in the outside world. Conversely, if teens feel their parents are ashamed of them, they are more vulnerable to the effects of others shaming them.
Research shows that parents’ feelings and state of mind are transmitted to children during interactions through a neurobiological process involving mirror neurons. Containing and regulating our own feelings offers solace to children. Before you react to your teen, remember - the most important way to shield him is to be his ally. Only then will he be able to turn to you and others for help - and not have to cover up to manage your state of mind.
Tips for Parents: What to Say - Do’s and Don’ts:
• Don’t try to talk your son out of being gay. Recognize that trying to persuade him that he’s not - or should not be - gay will surely backfire for him and your relationship and give him the message that he cannot turn to you.
• Recognize that you do not have the power or capacity to influence whether your teen is in fact gay. You do have the power to influence how he feels about himself.
• Change the focus from whether your son is gay or not to understanding how he is feeling, and his concerns.
• Help your teen sort out his concerns about what you feel and think about him from how he feels about himself.
• Talk about safety issues in a separate (and dispassionate) conversation in which you are both on the same team. Find out what worries your son and where he thinks he could run into trouble, and share your ideas and concerns. Authoritarian approaches are unsuccessful here.
• Get your teen’s collaboration and input in establishing guidelines and limits that could be protective of him (see example in text). Be honest with yourself and aware of any hidden agenda to scare or dissuade him from his sexuality in the guise of being protective - this would cause you to lose credibility and potentially encourage him to do the opposite of what you tell him.
How to Handle Your Own Feelings
• Get help. Make an explicit commitment to yourself and your son to work towards being open to understanding and accepting him for who he is.
• Delegate one parent - the one who can best manage feelings and who has the best relationship with your son - to be the main point of contact with your son (unless both of you manage your feelings equally well and have a good relationship with him).
• Contain your feelings and prepare in advance for difficult conversations. Engage in such discussions only when you are in a state of composure.
• Stay calm and resist your need to get your son to reassure you.
• Notice your tone and words. Remove yourself from escalating conversations and take a time-out.
• Refrain from interrogation, blame and lecture.
• Be aware of your implicit views and feelings on homosexuality and sexuality. Know that these views - and your true feelings about these issues and about your son – are transmitted to your children unconsciously. Shame is contagious.
• Acknowledge your biases and anxieties as such, rather than acting as if they are facts or truths.
• Don’t lie or pretend. Lying and family secrets teach your children to do the same.
• Create an atmosphere of acceptance and trustworthiness, so that your son will feel a safe haven and be more likely to talk to you. For example, show integrity by taking responsibility and apologizing when you take things personally or otherwise react from your own anxieties. Tell him you know that responding reflexively from your own biases adds to his burden and confusion. Acknowledge that it is your job, not his, to take care of yourself and to manage your own feelings and reactions.