What do you do when you find out your preteen thinks she’s a lesbian?

It’s Rebecca here today, since Mom’s away in Ireland for her 25th anniversary trip. So, since I just wrote a book about Why I Didn’t Rebel, she thought I’d be a good person to tackle this one!

Here’s the question we got:

I’m horrified. I just found texts on my 12 year old daughters phone that she has been telling friends at school that she is a Lesbian and has a girlfriend. This is all news to me and I am having a very hard time digesting this information. I don’t even know where to begin. Should I leave it and maybe she is just doing it as a shock factor thing, or should I approach her?

Wow. What do you do when your kid is just a preteen but is going through something this difficult?

When I read this, I don’t necessarily see this as a problem of “my kid thinks she’s a lesbian” and more as a problem of parents not knowing that this was happening. So I want to focus more on how to increase communication between parents and their preteen or teenaged kids.

First of all, though, understand what being gay often means to kids.

To be honest, being gay is kind of in vogue right now. A large portion of the top YouTubers are part of the LGBTQ community, and when someone comes out they’re hailed as a hero.

Lots of people truly do experience same-sex attraction, and they experience real struggles. But growing up, I had many friends “become gay” or “decide they were lesbians” in Jr. High or High School only to suddenly “become straight again” when they find someone who wants to go out with them. (I also knew some kids who truly were bisexual or gay, and their struggle was much different than these kids who were simply trying to find somewhere to fit in.)

This isn’t meant to minimize the struggles of kids in the LGBTQ community–quite the opposite. I think that the fact that this “trend” is happening cheapens their experience. But there are a lot of kids who see the attention and the pats on the back that kids who come out are getting and, if they feel alone, it can seem like a good way to feel validated.

So your daughter saying she’s a lesbian now, when she’s twelve, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be the case in their adult years.

The other thing to consider is that your daughter is twelve. The fact that she is saying she’s a lesbian isn’t really your main concern, in my opinion–the main concern is that she is obviously going through something difficult and she needs you to be involved. And for most kids the problem isn’t something this specific–it’s that they need better communication with their parents.

So let’s focus on that.

What do you do when your preteen says she's a lesbian? Here's some advice:

1. Actually get involved with your kids’ real lives–not just their activities.

A lot of parents think that “being involved” means interrogating their kids over family dinners, reading their journals to keep tabs, or tracking their phones.

Nope, that’s not what I’m talking about.

Involved parents are a big part of their kids’ lives, more than just the kids’ chauffeur, chef, and maid. Parents often think that they’re very involved because they spend a lot of time with their kids–driving to soccer, making and packing lunches and snacks, and doing chores together to clean up the house.

But in reality, those activities do nothing to strengthen your relationship. What does strengthen your relationship is being involved with your kids’ downtime. Sitting around in the kitchen watching funny cat videos does more for your relationship than towing them to soccer.

You need to have a real relationship with your kids. Being involved doesn’t mean keeping tabs–it means being a natural part of your kids’ daily experience. That’s the only way they’ll ever believe that you could possibly understand what they’re going through–if you’re a part of their daily lives.

2. Remember that you need to earn your kids’ trust.

Parents often forget that if they want their kids to open up and tell them things, they need to be worthy of their kids’ trust. And no, simply being a parent does not mean you’re worthy of your kids’ trust.

When kids become adolescents, their independence and feeling respected become more important than they ever have been before. They start keeping secrets, and are unlikely to divulge them unless they feel like their independence won’t be threatened, or if they feel like they wouldn’t be respected as an adult. I know it sounds silly, because a 12 year old is not an adult, but your preteen still deserves your respect. 

So how do you earn their trust?

Quick answer: it takes time. Ideally you can start early, and by the time they hit their preteen years they trust you. But if you haven’t done that, here’s what I’ve seen work:

1. Openly and honestly talk to your kids about what you’re feeling 

Remember, kids want to be respected. So show them some respect and be honest with them. It is perfectly acceptable for a parent to say:

“Honey, I heard that you have been telling people you have a girlfriend. I’m concerned that I didn’t know about this before, and I want you to feel like you can come to me with these sorts of things. So I’d like for us to work on that because I really care about you and I’m worried that you feel like you’re going through this alone. I want to show you that I’m here for you because I want us to be friends.” 

Being vulnerable gives them permission to be vulnerable, too, because you’re treating them like you would a friend, which is what your kid needs you to be if they’re going to open up. Yes, you’re a parent first and foremost. But they need you to be both.

2. Don’t punish when they open up 

One of the best ways to burn bridges with your kids is to punish them when they divulge secrets. Talking to parents should never be punished. Never. In the interviews for my books, the way parents handled their kids confessing, when it went well, usually included (a) listening without judgment, (b) thanking them sincerely for coming to you, and empathizing, and then (c) after a bit of time (e.g., the next morning) talking with the kid about where to go from there (enforcing punishments, changing some routines, whatever you need to do).

But there are some things that don’t need to be punished. With the girl above, nothing needs to be punished–and so if there are any “consequences” the only thing I would really recommend was saying, after they talked about it, that it was inappropriate for a 12-year-old to be dating anyone, no matter who they are. But punishing the kid for saying she’s a lesbian isn’t going to help anything. All that would do would tell the kid, “you can’t come to your parents with this sort of thing because they won’t understand.”

3. Spend time together 

Of course, none of this will really work if you aren’t going to work on building that relationship. A relationship can’t only be built around these hard conversations–like I said above, you’ve got to have down time together, too.

3. Focus on understanding more than getting information.

When parents are faced with these hard conversations, it can be easy to go into panic mode. Which is closely followed by crisis management.

But your kid doesn’t actually need that. What she needs is someone to hear her. To understand. To take time and put themselves in her shoes.

It’s only after you understand, truly put yourself in your kid’s position, that you’ll be able to see what she’s going through and understand what the next steps should be. The problem is that parents care so incredibly much for their kids that it can be difficult to take that step back, stop worrying about what will happen, and focus on what is happening in their kid’s life right now.

For the girl in the reader question–maybe she feels alone. Maybe she feels invisible. Maybe this girl is the only person who’s really nice to her at school. But her parents won’t figure out any of that if they’re so focused on trying to put a stop to everything that they don’t take time to just listen.

That’s all I have for today–how do you handle crises in your family? What communication styles work best for you and your kids? Let me know in the comments and we can chat about it!

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