“I like your friend, good sense of humor, and really seems to care about you. Thank you for introducing us,” her mom said, and clenched her jaw. “It’s still time for your friend to go home.”
Liz rolled her eyes and strutted with her friend out the front door, slamming it a little too hard. Liz’s shirt revealed more than her mom allowed. They stood on the other side of her friend’s car where her mom couldn’t see much.
Her mom blinked back tears as she set down the last dinner plate on a woven place mat. She was at least certain about where the forks went. She’d vowed to be more understanding than her own rigid parents had been during her adolescence, but now she had no idea where the line of reasonableness lay. She was afraid her daughter was being bullied, but Liz gave monosyllable grunts when she asked about how the other students were treating her. Liz was always angry unless she was staring at her phone, scrolling on her lap top or hanging out with her new handsy friend.
The principal had emailed all the parents last night about free counseling for any students affected by Monday’s suicide. Liz’s mom felt her pulse thump in her temples. Her stomach clenched. Those poor parents. Her terror of pushing too hard, appearing unfeeling or stressing her daughter more, gripped her heart.
It’s Not Easy
The emotional struggles of teenagers and the parents who love them, are challenging enough. Add to that, being in a minority, with an often-marginalized identity such as, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gendered or queer. As if that weren’t enough kindling for blazing anxiety, falling in love for the first time can overwhelm everyone involved.
Caring, yet fearful parents of hetero, cis-gendered kids have fought to keep hormone-driven teens safe forever, of course with mixed results. The litany of scare tactics; pregnancy, protecting your reputation, STD’s, and saving yourself for a future spouse, are well-worn weapons in this fight to help teens navigate the emotional and physical complications of approaching adulthood. But what if those particular dangers aren’t at stake? Then what?
The parents of LGBTQ teens that I see in my practice, generally fall into two categories; those who deny their child could be anything but straight and average, and those who “support” their child’s identity with no parameters or boundaries. Both of these camps leave teens in danger of life-long issues and emotional wounds that may never completely heal.
When parents are scared or judgmental about their child’s identity, they may seek outside institutions for suggestions. A parent may quote the fundamentalist clergy to try to scare their teen back into behavior they can understand. They may threaten to disown or disinherit their LGBTQ son or daughter in hopes of changing them. Angry or fearful parents may insist family and friends ignore the situation and refuse to acknowledge the teen’s orientation and/or love interests. Obviously, all these reactions are emotionally abusive and harmful to a young person’s developing self-esteem. But at the other extreme, are parents so afraid of being seen as unenlightened, homophobic or narrow minded that they stop being parental and protective.
Over the last three decades of treating families, I have seen wonderful shifts in parental acceptance of their LGBTQ children. With these shifts however, I’ve also seen parents of teenagers flounder about how to keep their adolescents as safe as possible, while honoring who they are. This is a tough challenge under the best of circumstances, but with very little support, no information or role models, I often find parents erring on the side of being their child’s friend and peer rather than staying in the difficult role of being the authority.
A parent doesn’t need to descend into being disrespectful or shaming to stay protective. There are healthy ways to set boundaries and keep these boundaries while staying open to and respecting a teen’s feelings and wishes. (Being respectful of their wish is NOT the same thing as granting it. Respect is about not mocking or criticizing what the teenager wants.)
The powerful chemicals released in the brain when a teen falls in love can blind them to many potential risks of a new relationship. Distinguishing between a date’s objective observations, and their projections or manipulations can be extremely difficult for a crushing teen. When the relationship turns physical, young love is also further blinded by the rush of dopamine and adrenaline.
One of the potential long-term threats of teen dating, is falling in love with an emotionally or verbally abusive significant other. Life-long identities are formed during these years and what a potential romantic partner thinks, matters. Their opinions or off-handed comments can become a teen’s most valued information. Do they like my humor? My hair? My weight? My frugality? My generosity? My music? My car? My ambition? My nurturing? My sexuality? My intelligence? My family? My beliefs? My body? My playing hard to get? My being easy to get? My forwardness? My coyness? Every aspect of life is weighed by how attractive it seems to a potential date.
All this happens while the immature adolescent brain struggles to make sense out of new information without the rational help of fully developed frontal lobes. This leaves hormone-driven teens at risk for long-term damage if a early romantic relationships turns abusive. They are also more vulnerable to flattery by someone seen as powerful or socially admired. Many LGBTQ kids, as minorities, feel they will have fewer dates to choose from, and sometimes compromise what they really want just to feel lovable. Teens also are unlikely to have effective tools for grief after the loss of an intense relationship. The terror of facing loss may further distort their evaluation if a relationship is good or bad.
While unwanted pregnancy, embarrassing STDs and preserving a reputation may be more tangible and easier to scare teens with, they may not be the most dangerous pitfalls of adolescent dating. The scars left by abusive first loves can include a life time of body shaming, fear of not being good enough, the belief that one deserves a cheating partner, an identity of being unlovable, the fear that they are lucky to have a partner at all, that one wrong move on their part could lead a partner to cheat, that no one else would want them, that disclosing secrets and vulnerabilities can be used for emotional blackmail or even a battered self-esteem on the brink of PTSD. These emotional dangers are just as important to warn dating teens about.
Just as with hetero kids, there is no sure way to protect your LGBTQ child from an early abusive relationship. Don’t give up trying. Just knowing that you care and that you are there for them, can in itself, be an insulation or at least a mitigation. Keep current about your teen’s academics, sports activities and school functions. Know what is important in your teen’s life.
Stay positive and expect the best. Don’t focus on their deceit. If you catch your teenager lying, talk about their fears. All lying is driven by fear and anxiety. All teens lie. Don’t base your decisions on what they say. Self-report by teens is unreliable. If you have concerns call the school counselor, check that homework is current by logging into the school’s homework site, let them know you have a tracker on their phone, make sure the passwords they give you are current. Don’t become disrespectful and lecturing if you catch them lying. Put systems in place so that you get the information from another source next time.
Check in with yourself as you set up their dating rules. Make sure that your rules reflect what is important to you while showing love and respect for your teen. Some ideas are:
- Spend non-judgmental time listening and talking with your teen. Often a teen will discuss and even work out a difficult relationship issue by themselves when they feel like a parent really cares and believes in them.
- Share your own high school and college dating experiences. Talk about the warning signs you noticed, maybe minimized, and eventually decided were enough to face the heart ache of a break up.
- Share books, movies and plays together about healthy, loving LGBTQ relationships.
- Reassure them that they deserve a relationship where they find that they are the best version of themselves (i.e., feel motivated, self-confident, optimistic about the future, respected and emotionally safe). Let them know that even though they may feel that they have fewer love interests to choose from, ultimately,”like attracts like,” so they should develop the traits in themselves they’d want in a life partner.
- Talk about the heady power of feeling sexually desired by a love interest. Explain the emotional vulnerability associated with a physical relationship (increased potential for jealousy, increased challenges in a break up, difficulty in seeing them date someone else after you, increased possibility for compromising standards to appease them, etc.).
- Talk about the dangers of being under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Don’t scold, lecture or compare, but convey real information about being uninhibited, being taken advantage of and not being able to clearly evaluate a situation when intoxicated.
- Teach your teen about the disease of addiction, especially if there is a genetic predisposition in your family. Drug test or get them treatment if necessary.
- Put in writing and post up, clear, specific and concrete household rules.
- Write up specific and concrete requirements to earn special privileges (curfew, electronics, money, outings, concerts, etc.). Make sure you include a “by when” attached to each requirement for a special privilege.
- Write up rules about spending time with friends such as:
“All electronics are charged in parents’ room by 10:00 PM. All teen’s passwords must be shared and current.”
“I need to know where you are and speak to the adult in charge there (or send a picture by phone, etc.).”
“The door to your room must stay open when you have friends over.”
“No overnight guests of the gender(s) you are attracted to.”
“No drug or alcohol use at any time.”
11. Be respectful and gracious to your teen’s friends. You will have more credibility if you aren’t making snap judgments based on looks or hear-say. Don’t gossip about them to parents of their friends.
12. Don’t make comparisons, i.e., “When I was your age,” or “Cousin Jared would never…”
13. Stay positive and emotionally connected so if your teen does run into trouble you’ll know, and can help them seek assistance.
14. Attend a PFLAG meeting near you.
15. Watch YouTube videos on teen dating abuse. Translate these into your child’s circumstance.
16. Dating as a teenager is exciting, fun and sometimes painful. Remember you can’t protect your teen from every potential harm. Be willing to talk about, and help them learn from unpleasant or difficult relationships or break ups.
17. Stay centered yourself. Don’t let your own unresolved fears get projected on to your teenager.
18. Compliment yourself on staying present, curious and loving while doing the difficult job of parenting! Remember, the two of you will laugh about all this in 20 years if you stay connected and parent with respect and authority.