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Family Distress Around Sexual Orientation

Intro

When families first find out that their child is homosexual, they may feel shock, bewilderment, anger, betrayal, sadness and/or guilt. These feelings are not uncommon and for most parents it is hard to accept that their child, whether young or adult, is not “normal”.  Parents may feel fear or sadness for their child’s future and guilt that their actions may have brought this about. In more conservative families, parents may develop feelings of anger and resentment because they now have to face their family and friends with news of their homosexual child. Some may have preferred not to have known at all. Nevertheless, while all these feelings may be natural and valid to some extent, it is necessary to accept and provide support to their child.

Cause

Distress over a child’s sexual orientation can be attributed to the following reasons:

Most parents have grown up in a time when attitude towards gay, lesbian and bisexual people was completely negative. Even current acceptance of them is limited in many countries. A lot of people still believe that homosexuality is a choice a person makes and this can bring about feelings of resentment in others.

Homosexuality is also a criminal offense in many African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. In some countries where it is not criminalized, the law does not recognize same-sex marriage. Parents may fear for their child’s safety and future.

Most religions oppose homosexuality and see it as something unnatural, immoral and sinful.It is not uncommon therefore in religiously conservative families for parents and other family members to think their homosexual child is condemned for their “unnatural” and “immoral” acts.

Homosexuality has been associated with HIV, mostly because it spread first among male homosexuals. Some parents may be concerned that it is a “gay disease” that will infect their children.

As we live in a heteronormative society, where anyone deviating from the majority can be ostracized, parents may feel concerned about what their neighbors, colleagues, relatives and friends will think. They may also fear ostracization not just for themselves, but also for their children.

Many parents may feel guilty and wonder where they went wrong. This is not unusual as there are numerous studies about the huge influence parents have on their children’s lives. However,all evidence points to the fact that homosexuality is something one is born with and not chosen.

Risk Factors:

While it may not always hold true, families that are overly religious, conservative, less-well educated, live in small, rural towns may be less likely to accept their child’s sexual orientation. Parents who already have a contentious relationship with their children are also less likely to react positively.

Clinical Presentation

The most common reactions from parents when children disclose their sexual orientation are negative in nature. Research has also shown that mothers tend to feel anger and guilt, while fathers tend to reject and deny.

Studies have shown that parents go through an initial grieving period where they feel the loss of their son/daughter as they have known them. There is concern for their future in terms of marriage and grandchildren. Some parents also respond with denial, and believe that their child can return to a heterosexual lifestyle. They may also not want to disclose this development to other family and friends, under the fear of being ostracized. Feelings of anger and guilt are common. Parents may blame themselves or others around them for being responsible for their child’s sexual orientation.                                                                                     Using violence as a means of threatening their LGB (lesbian, gay and bisexual) child to change back to “normal” is also seen at times. Some parents may try and emotionally manipulate or bargain with their children to reverse their sexual orientation; they may also suggest religious therapy and/or psychotherapy as a means of conversion. In some extreme cases, parents may never be able to reconcile their differences with their child and families have been known to cut off all ties with their children further endangering any chances of a long term relationship.

It is not uncommon for homosexuals to disclose their sexual orientation first to a sibling they are close to; in these cases, research has shown that the sibling too experiences feelings of anger, guilt and confusion. They may also start to question their own personal sexual identity.

Treatment

Seeking counseling is the most effective way to overcome distress over a child’s sexual orientation. It is necessary for both parties to communicate freely and without the threat of punitive actions.

Some parents may feel more comfortable when being counseled by a member of the religious clergy.

There are many resources available to help families of LGB individuals. Organizations such as Parents of gays in the USA, Parents and friends of gays and lesbians in Australia and other parental support groups can help them realize that they are not alone in this situation and that help and understanding is available.

Prevention

Studies have shown that those parents that had a favorable relationship with their child before disclosure of sexual orientation were far more likelier to react more positively to their child’s revelation. Therefore fostering an open, communicative and loving relationship with one’s children may help parents understand and accept their children’s choices better.