Growing up is rarely a smooth and easy journey. This is especially true when you are figuring out who you are, and trying to affirm and assert your sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Parents of LGBTQIA+ children and teens may also find their child’s maturation a challenging time. But family support and acceptance is vital to the physical and emotional health of young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

Joining a parent support group is a wonderful resource for parents of LGBTQIA+ children as it can be comforting to talk with fellow parents who are on the same journey. Kaleidoscope offers an ongoing, bi-monthly support group for parents and caregivers of LGBTQIA+ young people.

I am the proud parent of a gay son and a member of Kaleidoscope’s parent group. I find our meetings to be uplifting and inspiring. Recently I had a conversation with our group leader, Kaleidoscope Therapist Bryan Scheihing, and we talked about the importance of group support:

Hi Bryan, can you describe the dynamics of a parent support group?

A support group helps participants cope with common challenges that they are facing or have faced. Kaleidoscope’s support group is a safe space for parents to connect with one another, share their experiences, give and receive support, and learn about resources.

How can a support group help parents prepare for mental health challenges their child may face?

Attending our support group can help parents gain skills that will allow them to feel prepared if their child develops mental health challenges related to their LGBTQIA+ identity. Conversations regarding potential challenges, adversity, and safety concerns are instructive for parents and allow them to help their child develop the “emotional armor” they need to withstand negative messaging and recognize that the real problem lies with those perpetuating the message.

Our parent group is also a source of information so that parents can learn how to help their LGBTQIA+ child develop a strong sense of self-esteem which can serve as a protective factor to help reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and substance abuse behaviors. In addition, parents in our group learn about opportunities available to their child to help find peers to connect with and how to access resources within the LGBTQIA+ community.

What advice do you give to parents who feel stressed, confused, or surprised by their child’s coming out?

That these are normal reactions! At Kaleidoscope, we always assume that parents are coming from a good place and want what is best for their children. For many parents, acceptance of their child is just a natural response. For other parents, acceptance is a journey. There are parents for whom their initial reaction may be that they won’t be able to accept their LGBTQIA+ child’s identity. In those times, it may be helpful to think no matter how difficult it may be for a parent to learn about their child’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity, it was much, much more difficult for a young person to come out to their parents. Our group is a safe space for parents to share their feelings about their child’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity with other parents on the same journey without fear of judgement.

How can the support group help parents who love and support their LGBTQIA+ child but are feeling a sense of grief that the life they had imagined for their child may not come to be?

The support group can help parents realize that grieving is a process; it is not linear and it takes time to adjust. Talking with other parents who may have had similar initial reactions can be comforting. Sharing feelings can provide an opportunity for self-exploration of one’s own biases and fears. Sometimes a parent’s grief stems from the fear that their child may not get to experience certain aspects of life as a result of their gender identification and/or sexual orientation. For example, many parents who initially mourned their LGBTQIA+ child’s coming out as meaning their child would not have children of their own, now find themselves being proud grandparents! Often parents will say that hearing another parent in the group describe how they moved from grief to acceptance to fully embracing their LGBTQIA+ child is a source of solace and hope.

Sometimes in our group discussions, a parent will share that they feel that they have done something wrong that caused their child to identify as LGBTQIA+. How does our group support parents who feel this way?

Our group is an opportunity to talk about how identifying as LGBTQIA+ is not a choice or a reaction to anything, but a recognition of who one is in regard to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.  (Note the word orientation is used rather than preference to demonstrate that this is how one naturally is and not somehow choosing to be.)  The choice that’s involved is whether or not to authentically express this orientation and identity to others.

Our group is a safe space where parents can share their worries and provides an opportunity to ask questions and to get clarity on LGBTQIA+ concepts that may be misunderstood. We talk openly in the group that it is a heteronormative bias that something has “gone wrong” when someone is LGBTQIA+. Every human being has a sexual orientation and gender identity. The fact that some orientations and identities are different from others does not make them wrong – it just makes them different. And that’s perfectly okay.

Our group is for parents of neurotypical and neurodivergent LGBTQIA+ children. Have you found that parenting a LGBTQIA+ child is similar for both cohorts?

Although each child with autism has a unique experience, LGBTQIA+ young people that are also on the autism spectrum may face more complex challenges than their neurotypical peers. It’s important to listen to these young people and consider the potential influence of certain factors, such as theory of mind deficits, social challenges, sensory sensitivity, and more, while also recognizing that youth with autism have as much of a right to identify and express who they are as neurotypical young people.

What would you say to a parent that wants to attend our support group but feels a bit nervous about it. What can they expect?

I would tell them: You are not alone. Not in your experience of having a LGBTQIA+ child, not in your concern for wanting to support them, and not in your experience of feeling anxious about engaging with other parents. Culturally, many of us were raised to keep such “family issues” to ourselves, which only perpetuates stigma. The purpose of the group is to support you in your experience. You will not be shamed or judged for your feelings. You will be welcomed.

Thank you Bryan for your insight and guidance. If you are interested in joining our Kaleidoscope Parent Group or have questions about the group, please contact Bryan at BScheihing@thehelpgroup.org