Where to begin?
With more than 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in states across the country—and now, with the looming threats signaled from the highest court in the nation—there is so much for LGBTQ+ families to process right now. Of course, it’s crucial to take action and protect ourselves and our families. But, beyond outrage, all of us are scared.
And yet, despite this fear, as parents we have a responsibility to care for and connect with our children—especially during these difficult times.
Parents and caregivers are often a child’s first partners in processing emotions. So, how do we engage with our children in the middle of this heartache? How do we approach these complicated and unjust issues in a way that feels honest, but also age-appropriate? Where do we even begin?
Here are some tips for starting the conversation with our youth.
Meet them where they’re at.
Perhaps your children are old enough to be on social media and follow the news. Maybe, all they know is that some states are passing laws that limit who can play which sports. Either way, meet them where they are at and keep things there.
Opening up this conversation might feel challenging, but it can be as simple as, “I saw the news today about a bill that bans some kinds of books. Did you see that?” or “Have you heard anything about the Supreme Court at school today?”
Then, follow their lead.
If your child is not aware of current events, but you want to make sure that they’re informed, break it down in terms they understand. A “book ban” might be better explained as “rules about what books can and can’t be in our school library.” Criminalizing healthcare for trans youth can be referred to as laws about what kind of medicine doctors can give transgender people. Discussions around marriage equality can be talked about as debates people are having about who is allowed to get married.
Often for children, it helps to frame things in terms that are already commonplace in your family. Have you talked about the importance of LGBTQ+ families being represented in picture books? Let them know that those are the books that aren’t being allowed in school libraries.
Be honest about your feelings.
Don’t just focus on the facts. Be honest about how you feel, because it’s important that our children hear us talking about our feelings.
For some, this might feel tricky. But rest assured: We can name our feelings without adding to their stress. We don’t have to go into detail about our heartache, but we can let them know that it makes us sad that leaders are debating our ability to marry or that transgender youth might not be able to live authentically. Being honest about our own feelings can signal to our kids that their honest feelings are not only okay but also worth talking about.
If you are living in a place that is currently in the middle of adapting these harmful laws, or if you or your children occupy identities that are being directly targeted, your feelings might be amplified or more raw. Don’t shy away from that, but maybe read the following paragraph a few extra times.
Reassurance is Key.
It may seem obvious, but it’s important that you let your kids know that they are safe. Take the time to explain what “unconditional love” means. Dive head first into all of the choices you’ve made with their wellbeing and joy at the forefront of your mind. After chatting, have a snuggly movie night or dessert before dinner. Don’t just indulge as a family—indulge in your family. Do something special together, and maybe make a habit of it for the next few months. This will help your kiddo lean into the love and safety your family shares, no matter what’s happening in the outside world.
If you’re living in a place where these awful restrictions are your reality, or you and/or your child’s identity are the ones being attacked, let your children know all the actions you’re taking (or plan to take) to keep your family safe.
Are you scheduling a meeting with a lawyer to pursue a confirmatory adoption? Exploring out-of-state healthcare options? Meeting with a teacher proactively? Don’t be shy about talking through the safety nets you are putting in place for your family.
Of course, you know your family best. If you anticipate that too much information might become overwhelming, keep it simple and bite-sized. Statements like, “I know this is stressful. I’m making sure this doesn’t affect our next doctor appointment” or “I bought some extra of our favorite picture books to give to our friends so they have them at their house, too” can go a long way. Don’t forget that along with reassurance comes asking others what they need. In addition to letting your children know they’re loved and supported—and informing them about the steps you’re taking to protect their pride + joy—ask them what they need to feel safe and loved.
Ask and Validate.
As parents, sometimes we forget that our children are their own people—especially youth who are really young. While our urge might be to proactively reassure them and shower them with love (let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with those things!), it’s absolutely essential that we listen. Ask your child(ren) how they are feeling about everything going on, and then just listen & validate.
Validating can look like so many things! A statement like “I understand and feel the same” can do a lot to let your child know that you hear them.
Maybe your child tends to brush things off so as to not let on to the bigger feelings they’re having. Instead of pressuring them to be more honest, shift to a different mantra: “If your feelings change or you want to talk more, I’m here to listen.”
Maybe your child is more likely to share after they hear how you’re feeling about something. Be honest & share your feelings, and then leave the door open for them to walk through.
Even if you and your child are feeling similar things, make sure you’re not making the conversation all about you! This is a great time to actively listen and validate by stating truths like, “What’s happening is really scary,” or “Anger makes perfect sense right now.”
There is no greater rule of parenting than checking in on your child and asking how they are doing (now, but also always!)—but some young people might not be fans of constant questioning. That’s okay! In these events, honesty is usually the best policy. Let your chil(ren) know, “Hey, I’m really wondering how you’re doing with so much harmful media around LGBTQ+ people and families. But, I know it might get annoying if I keep asking how you’re doing. How can I ask or check in with you in a way that’s not annoying?”
Yes, it can really be that simple! As an added benefit, by creating a system or coming to a conclusion together, you’re building something that truly works for both of you.
Give Your Children Their Own Resources.
Of course, our children love us and depend on us so much. But, they also deserve to process, feel, and understand separate from us. It’s so important that we encourage our child(ren) to carve out time and space for authentic self-care. Gift your child a new journal. Let them know that there’s time for an extra-long bath tonight. Encourage them to go on a walk before school. By outwardly supporting their self-care habits, we are signaling that making space is not just “acceptable”—it’s essential.
In addition to caring for themselves, our children need their own community. From in-person meet-ups to virtual support groups, there are so many options out there for our children to build connections! Remind them about their local GSA, write down the meeting days and times of your local LGBTQ+ youth group, or connect them with COLAGE, the only organization serving children of LGBTQ+ people.
The reality of our society right now is complex, and (unfortunately) only getting more intense for LGBTQ+ people and families. Ensuring our children have resources that encourage their well-being is incredibly important, and something everyone in our families deserves.
Jess Venable Novak
Director of Family Formation
Jess is a queer, non-binary educator, organizer, and parent living in rural Vermont. Jess began working with Family Equality first as the Midwest Children’s Programming Intern from 2010-2012, then returned as the Data & Training Intern in 2019 and the Family Week Fellow in 2020. They are grateful to be returning to Family Equality as the Director of Family Formation after having served as the Family Engagement Manager for several months. Originally from the Midwest, Jess has been living and working in Vermont for several years, most recently serving as the Statewide Director of Education at the Pride Center of Vermont. Jess brings with them years of experience working at the intersection of education, facilitation and community building within the non-profit sector as well in state-level politics. Presently, when they aren’t crossword-ing with their sweetie or doing art projects with their kiddo, they consult with schools, employers, and organizations to facilitate conversations about how we can build a culture that supports and celebrates LGBTQ+ people.