Having lived in the trenches of family ministry for the past two decades, I’ve been blessed with the honor of having a front row seat to the private lives of parents and their children. This proximity and access have been at times both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
Every single day I sit with, listen to, and care for families in the middle of their coming-out stories, and far too many times I’ve watched loving, faithful, well-meaning moms and dads do and say things in those early moments that did more harm to their sons and daughters than they could ever imagine.
Parents, should the day come when your children share the news with you that they identify as LGBTQ, here are five surefire ways to blow it:
1) Make it all about you.
This is surely a parenting curve ball of epic proportions; an expectation-shattering, plan-altering, world-rocking bit of news. You likely feel disoriented by a thousand swirling thoughts and fears and questions, but ultimately this is about your child—not you. This is primarily their story. It is about the deepest contents of their hearts, and so whatever you are experiencing emotionally, it pales in comparison to what your child is going through. Before this is something happening to you, it is something happening in them.
There will and should be time for you to be heard, cared for, and tended to, but now is not that time. Your child is in desperate and immediate need. Lay down your feelings for theirs.
2) Scream and Sermonize.
Volume will not alter anything your child has shared with you. Though it may feel good for you as some momentary catharsis, it will only magnify their anxiety and guilt, and serve to drive a deep wedge between the two of you. No amount of histrionics and chest beating will result in productive movement here. Trust me when I tell you that you cannot yell someone into heteronormativity if that is not their truth. Screaming and sermonizing are conversation stoppers and they prevent you from listening and learning, which are your most urgent tasks in these moments.
3) Pummel them with Scriptures.
Understand this, parents: your child has been thinking about what they’ve shared with you long before this moment, and quite likely they already know well the very verses you’ll be tempted to respond with. More than that, they’ve probably studied them, wrestled with them, and prayed through them in ways you’ve never considered, and so these will not be received as welcome revelations of new insight, but rather as expected violence that they are used to sustaining from Christians.
Whether you intend it or not, the Bible will likely only feel like a weapon right now, and do more destruction than renovation—so wield it with great caution.
4) Tell them they are just “confused”.
In your knee-jerk response to the fear and panic of the moment, you may want to dismiss your child as going through some temporary phase or somehow misinterpreting what is happening internally. I’d imagine that when it comes to your own gender identity and sexual orientation, that at almost any age you would have deemed yourself to be the most qualified and reliable authority to speak on the subject. Give your children the same courtesy as they share about themselves, because as young as they might be they still know far more about this than you do. Don’t assume that you can accurately assess from a distance, what they are experiencing from within.
Resist the temptation to correct or debate them when they tell you what they are feeling. They are already risking a great deal simply by sharing it with you.
5) Discipline or distance them.
Please hear me, parents: Grounding your child, berating them, becoming silent, or worse yet, expelling them from your home and from relationship with you, are guaranteed ball-droppers that you will regret. Regardless of your theological perspective or your personal feelings on what your child is naming as their truth, punishing them either with violence or silence or distance will do irreparable damage and will become an emotional barrier that once erected, you will find nearly impossible to scale.
In matters such as these (as with all relational growth) nothing good happens with forced separation. The only way redemption comes is when you move together as a family; when you do not withhold love and affection and connection from those so needing it, even if you disagree.
Moms and Dads, make no mistake: if your children should come out to you, your words and your manner in those first moments and hours will impact and shape their lives beyond what you can comprehend. They will become the bedrock on which your future relationship with them rests, and if you get it wrong you will have fractured the trust they have placed in you. Doubling down in these areas, will squander the precious, fleeting, finite gift of time that you have been given with them; one you can never get back.
Because I care so deeply about you and your children, and because I’ve walked alongside thousands of people in these very same storms, I want to make sure your heart is prepared now, so that you choose wisely in the emotion of the moment. You don’t need to forfeit your feelings or your beliefs, but you do need to yield to your child. Remember this is their story, first.
Listen, breathe, and be very slow to speak unless, it is with clear, unmistakable expressions of your unconditional love for your children. In the early moments of this new beginning, that is all that is necessary. It’s OK to let them know what you don’t understand, but if they don’t walk away from that first conversation certain that you are truly for them and with them, anything else you say won’t matter.
Parents, your child has braved all manner of fear and shame to speak these courageous words to you, and they’ve entrusted you with the deepest parts of themselves because you matter that much to them. They are counting on you to love them well and to shelter them in the most vulnerable moment of their lives; to be the ones they can be safe with if nowhere else on the planet.
For God’s sake and for theirs—don’t blow it.
Note: Moms and Dads, it is one of my greatest passions to help families navigate these incredibly difficult seasons together. As a pastor who has devoted nearly two decades to students, I would be honored to help you as you process and share and plan. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if I can serve your family in any way.
Order John’s book, ‘A Bigger Table’ here.