Recently, a local church held a conference for parents whose children have come out as LBGTQ+. It was a bold move. The church and its pastor came under great scrutiny. While some applauded their efforts to support parents struggling to respond to their kids, others questioned their methods and motives. Many were downright angry. But no matter where any one person lands on the hosting of such a conference, what seems to be clear is that the church is struggling with how to handle families with children who identify as LBGTQ+. There are a lot of deep, meaningful discussions regarding this topic going on in Christendom. Many churches and denominations have split on their different interpretations of scripture. But as theologians and church leadership debate, some members of Christ’s church are being left behind – the families themselves. Families, kids, and parents are unsure where to turn and are often afraid to ask for help. Parents who love their children suddenly find themselves isolated and afraid. Kids who love their parents agonize over whether they will be ostracized from their parents’ affection or even allowed to remain at home. The spiritual home (their church) they’ve trusted until this point becomes a place to be feared, not embraced. How does the church speak into their lives? How do we respond in love? First is to remind ourselves that Christ sought out the hurting, the ostracized, those who did not appear to be as “spiritual” as many of their neighbors, and He chose to love them. Before He gave them instruction, He listened and empathized with their pain. He got to know them and heard their stories as He worked to reach their hearts with the good news of Himself. Although we know He is alive and His Spirit lives in the hearts of all believers, what would He hear from these families if he were to visit again in the flesh? He’d hear their pain. He’d hear their suffering.
The process parents are going through is a lot like the steps involved in grief.
1. Denial. Parents often disbelieve what they are hearing in the first moments of shock. It’s so much to take in and often unexpected. They may want to believe it’s a fleeting idea that will pass with some persuasion. “How could this happen to us? To our family?” “We didn’t bring our child up this way.”
2. Bargaining. “What if I can get them to change their mind?” “If I explain how this is sin, maybe they will stop.” “I’ll take them to the church (pastor, youth pastor, elder), and they will help my child change their mind.” “If we can get them into a different friend group.” “Maybe there is some program …” These and many other ideas may come to mind in hopes of their child returning to “normal.”
3. Anger. Once the shock has worn off and bargaining tactics prove ineffective, anger may be the emotion that comes most easily. It may look like demanding, accusing, criticizing, sarcasm, complaining, blaming, and shaming. However, underneath is usually a combination of other feelings.
4. Guilt and Shame. “Did we do something wrong?” “How could this happen in our family?” “We can’t let anyone know.” “How can we show ourselves at church again?” There may be a profound sense of inadequacy accompanied by embarrassment. Their own identities as parents and faithful Christians may feel called into question, causing a deep sense of shame and loss.
5. Fear. Fear may range from concern about their child’s well-being from a physical perspective and spiritual perspective to worry that their child and their family will be ostracized from their social communities and church. “What if my child wants to alter their body?” “What if someone tries to hurt our child?” “ “What if no one wants to be our friends anymore?” What will God think of our child and us?”
6. Grief and sadness. Parents may grieve the loss of their dreams for their child. They may lose hope of having grandchildren. They may feel sad about the future conflict their child may face. They may grieve over losing their own identity as parents. Thoughts regarding their child’s spiritual standing may bring deep grief. And loss of friends may also bring about sadness.
While parents are wrestling with their feelings, teens are grappling with theirs, too.
1. Confusion and doubt. Adolescence is the period of life where young people begin to question themselves, explore who they are, and figure out how they fit into the world. Same-sex attraction only makes that process harder. “Why is my body acting this way?” “What does this mean about me?” “Does this mean I am bad?” “Does anyone else feel the same way I do?” “This isn’t what my church, parents, and friends believe is good.” “Does God see me?” “What is He thinking? What does this mean about my faith?” “Is there anyone who can help me with this? Who can I turn to?”
2. Fear. “Will I lose my family?” “Will God hate me?” “Will my friends still accept me, or will they walk away?” “Will I be alone?” “Will someone try to hurt me?” Great fears of abandonment may increase teens’ negative feelings toward themselves if they experience same-sex attraction. And for good reason. They understand the loss of vital, precious relationships is a distinct reality. And for Christian kids, thoughts of God and their parents abandoning them are often more than they can bear.
3. Rejection and Isolation. Adolescence is a phase of life that requires great support, patience, wisdom, and love, especially as parents guide their kids regarding relationships of all kinds. Teens rely on parents to help them navigate friendships, relationships with teachers and other adults, and their budding romantic interests. However, often, when teens divulge their sexual feelings toward someone of the opposite sex, family relationships that have felt warm and accepting in the past suddenly shift. When teens need their parents’ understanding and wisdom most, they experience shame, rejection, anger, and judgment instead. Instead of hearing, “I love you, and I’m not going anywhere. God loves you. I’ll be right by your side as we figure this out together,” they hear words that indicate God and their parents will abandon them if they do not change – and quickly! There are too many stories of kids who have shared their feelings with friends only to receive the immediate response, “You’re going to hell, and I can’t be your friend.” In one fell swoop, they lose friends, parents, and God. Is it any wonder that the suicide rate for teens who experience same-sex attraction is four times higher than that of their peers?
Are there stories where kids have felt loved by their parents, even when their parents were not supportive of their child’s sexual attraction? Yes. However, the families we see are usually
involved in high levels of conflict. Fear and hurt sound more like anger. Attempts to connect turn into opposition. Relationships that were once warm and caring become dominated by pain and sorrow. Parents are at a loss. Teens feel hopeless and alone. Everyone loses. All are grieved – including God.
As a faith-integrated mental health practice, we understand the complexity of navigating spiritual and family issues. We know it is hard. At the heart of each of our therapists is the deep desire to help families heal and reconnect with each other. Our focus is to help each member feel heard and understood as they work together. The greatest tragedy is seeing families lose each other – teens feeling abandoned, parents losing influence in the lives of their struggling kids, and everyone experiencing devastating pain instead of abiding love. If you are reading this because your family is experiencing pain from this or any other issue, our goal is to help you reconnect to each other’s hearts instead of blaming, yelling, and fighting. We want to help you remember how much you love each other even though you may not currently be in touch with those feelings. We’d like to lead you in new ways of communicating that will help you overcome any issue that threatens to come between you. We hear your pain. We hear your suffering. And we intervene without judgment. Our goal is to bring you together again.