When Jo Middleton’s teenage daughter seemed upset and and reluctant to talk, her first thought was that her daughter might be pregnant. In fact, she was relieved to hear that her daughter wanted to tell her she was gay.
Jo, who blogs at Slummy Single Mummy, stayed calm and reassured her daughter that she would love her no matter what: “I told her that exploring her sexuality was totally normal, and that I would offer whatever support I could.”
But with teenagers you can never win. “I have since learnt that she complained to her gran that I was too laid-back about it, and she thought that meant I didn’t care.”
Coming out is less of a big deal than it used to be, with bisexual celebrities from Lady Gaga to Cara Delevingne (who’s been linked to both Harry Styles and Michelle Rodriguez) relaxed and open about their sexuality.
Your child may talk indirectly about matters of sexuality to gauge your response
Where coming out might once have involved an in-depth, nervous conversation, now it may happen casually on a blog post, Twitter hashtag or, like Tom Daley, a YouTube video.
In his coming out video last December, the 19-year-old diver said, “Of course I still fancy girls” but by April this year he announced “I am a gay man now”.
The period of confused sexuality which many teenagers experience has morphed from an internal churning to a casual conversation with friends on Tumblr.
So where does that leave we parents? Do we join in that conversation or keep well out?
Glenn Mason is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and counselling psychologist in doctoral training. He specialises in improving LGB&T health and wellbeing and has worked with a number of parents who have been struggling to deal with their bi-curious child.
He says: “Some of them had found out their teen had been meeting up with people for dates and sexual contact. The difficulty was that they found this out by accident or by purposely looking through their son or daughter’s phone or internet history.”
Resist the temptation to stalk your child on social media.
Their blog or Tumblr may be open to all, but that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable with you reading it. “That’s creepy, mum,” as my 14-year-old bluntly puts it.
So, how to approach the subject?
Mason’s advice is to tread carefully, since asking directly may not lead to an honest answer, and your child will be anxious about your reaction.
“We know from research that parents are generally not the first people to know about their child’s sexuality,” he says. “However, the age of disclosure within the family is now believed to be getting younger, at around 17 years old.”
Mums and siblings are often the first family members to know. Your child may talk indirectly about matters of sexuality to gauge your response.
These are the important signs, Mason says. “Listen out for these times, as it may be an opportunity for you to offer your thoughts, making it easier for your son or daughter to tell you at a later stage. Support is one of many key factors which will help any individual make sense of their sexuality.”
But don’t quiz them too much. “Be mindful that your son or daughter may still be discovering their sense of self, and asking too many questions of them could be quite a challenge as they might not have all the answers at this stage. “
Listen more than you talk
Remember that you have two ears and one mouth, and use them in that ratio. Your bi-curious child is still experimenting, and may not be ready to take on a definitive label of one sexuality or another. What they’re doing now, they may not be doing in a few years’ time.
Jo Middleton advises keeping an open mind. “Although my daughter was adamant that she was gay, she is now, at 18, happily dating a boy on her university course.
“But she wouldn’t have wanted to hear anything like ‘it’s probably just a phase’ as it was very real at the time.”
Take time to simply be together, with no pressure to talk. Go to see a movie or visit an exhibition. Often children will open up most when there is less pressure to talk and you’re not making direct eye contact.
Ask your child’s permission before you take their news elsewhere. They may be happy discussing the topic with their friends on Tumblr but that doesn’t mean you have permission to announce it to Grandma via Facebook.
Make it clear that you are always on your child’s side, encouraging them to make positive choices, even if they differ from your own.