It gets better. It really does, right?
October 3, 2013 5:32 PM   Subscribe

A friend's 13 yo son has been having serious mental and behavioral problems and they haven't fully figured out why. They discovered by accident (shared electronics) that he is now identifying as bi and has expressed romantic interest in another guy his age. I'm also queer but I'm not a parent (and I grew up before the internet gave me access to Dan Savage, in a very different cultural climate). I totally know how hard it is to be a GLBTQ teenager and want to help them alleviate as much of the sexual identity stress on him as possible/appropriate. What do you feel are the best resources or advice for a parent of a gay teenager with mental health issues?

I grew up in a bible town and I had to switch high schools because of homophobia. My parents kept me away from my girlfriend for a long time (and sometimes erred on the side of keeping me away from platonic female friends who had short hair; good times). While the theatre crowd I hung out with was much more liberal than the ambient city, that wasn't difficult given that social temperature had been set to "witch hunt" for the last fifty years. It was definitely much more risky for me to seek out even innocent relationships with other girls - I was threatened a couple times by boys and even by parents.

It got better. Liberal arts college, big university grad school, big cities, now live in Seattle. (Literally Dan-Savage-town.) My friend and their son live in a suburb. They're extremely progressive and lefties. I bet high school sucks for GLBT kids everywhere, though. I'm already set to offer low pressure mentoring and perhaps my copy of Kate Bornstein's Hello, Cruel World (appropriate?). What do you feel are the best resources or advice for a parent a bi teen (with mental health and behavioral issues), whose sexuality is new to his parents? Do you have any advice I could give them or resources (web, books, Seattle specific, Washington specific, etc) that specifically address:

1. having found out that he was identifying as bi by accident? (It sounds like the topic has already been broached.)
2. the specific mental health issues that gay teens deal with? Importantly: how many diverse behavior problems and mental health issues are common among gay teens, boys in specific. Trouble at school, with authority, defiance, etc. (Last I heard, counseling was in the works. Is queer friendly a big deal for non-religious counselors who work with children? It's never been much of an issue for me with medical providers. I realize that's rare, though. I'd worry about a therapist framing his sexuality as acting out or a phase. Is that common, still?)
3. general stuff about all the bullshit that comes with being queer in high school?
4. given that he's expressed interest in another kid, relationship stuff that might be particular to parents of gay teens (maybe including sex ed particular to all this)? My parents, despite the lesbo panic, had NO IDEA how many girlfriends I had and I wasn't educated at all about how to protect myself from disease with them. It seems like that could be a lot riskier with boys.
5. finally, and this is what I've never seen a single resource about, anything specific to young adults and bisexuality, specifically boys? When I was growing up, my sexuality was dismissed as a phase by many of the people who were safe to tell about it.

Any tips for how to be a big queer sister to him, if they'd like that, are very welcome too. Oh, and I know I'm being a busybody. I will approach with caution and not assume anything unless asked. I know that. I wish somebody like me had been around back then.
posted by sweltering to Human Relations (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
California therapists recently had a huge controversy over whether the state's association of Marriage & Family Therapists (which governs ethics for those therapists) should officially support the idea of same-sex marriage. All over the country, students in therapy grad programs are suing schools for infringing on their religious rights by insisting they be able to competently counsel gay clients. I would definitely suggest that the kid's parents seek out a therapist who has experience with teens and with LGBTQ issues. Psychology Today's Therapist Finder includes those as searchable criteria.

I would also start framing his "mental illness" or "behavioral problems" as likely secondary to his sexuality; that is, he's most likely experiencing anguish because of his secret, and he probably doesn't need to be more pathologized than that for right now.
posted by jaguar at 5:52 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

There are a TON of LGBT Youth resources for Seattle located here.

When I was coming out as a teenager, the Youth 13-17 list at Youth Guardian Services was a huge help. (The age policy on this list and others like it is strictly enforced.)

Lambert House has a boys' specific group.

As jaguar noted, what presents as mental health problems could be not a mental illness at all, but related to dealing with his sexuality. I had something very similar happen to me at 13.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:55 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is kind of more for him than for the parents. My brother used to go to the boys group at Lambert House, though it's in Seattle proper, so perhaps hard for him to get to. I sort of feel like that might cover some of 2-5 for him, though not his parents. (I hung out somewhat kind of similar in college. To be honest, that's where most of my sex ed came from. And my knowledge of CSI. We watched a lot of CSI.)

Neither of us was out in high school and I think 13 year old me would have really wanted to know there were queer people who turned out okay, but there were essentially no queer people in my life. Obviously, you're around this kid or you wouldn't be asking the question, but I suspect knowing queer people a couple years older than him (rather than fully-formed Adults with capital A) would go a long way.
posted by hoyland at 5:58 PM on October 3, 2013

I think at least in heavily liberal, queer-friendly areas it has gotten better in high school for queer teens. A lot of schools have GSAs now--Gay-Straight Alliances; I'm going to bet that many of the Seattle-area schools do. FWIW, my son was gay, and while middle school 8th grade was a little rough by high school he found his "tribe" and didn't have any particular difficulties with bullying or homophobia.

For the parents, the local PFLAG chapter may have some resources to the specific challenges of parenting a LGBT child.

Finally, on the therapy issue, again, in a queer-friendly area it should not be difficult to find a queer-friendly therapist with experience working with teens. The bigger challenge may be getting a teenager with behavioral issues to "buy in" to therapy--a kid who hates being in therapy just isn't going to get a lot out of it until they can be convinced it's got some value for them. I wouldn't jump immediately to the conclusion that his mental health issues are merely secondary to his sexuality. My son was gay, and he was bipolar, and he benefited from a supportive community and all that, but he also was a bit of a mess unless he was on the right cocktail of medication.
posted by drlith at 6:17 PM on October 3, 2013

First, thank you for being awesome and for reaching out to this kid.

I hope other people have great advice to offer on the mental health side of things. That's not my area of expertise (I'm a teacher), so I'll stick to what I am an expert on.

If it does turn out that the challenges he's going through right now are largely related to his sexuality, previous suggestions to reach out to his GSA, counselors, etc. are a great place to start. However. If it doesn't get better, if his school doesn't have a GSA, if he is experiencing bullying - I think his parents should at least consider moving into Seattle.

I grew up in Seattle and went to one of the large public high schools. It was incredibly accepting of homosexuality (more so, even, than the small liberal arts college I went to). Flash forward a decade - I now teach at a high school in the suburbs of Seattle. Though I'm just half an hour a way, the climate is much, much more conservative and homophobic. It's gotten better - fewer anti-gay slurs, more outspoken support of gay marriage, finally a GSA - but it's still not a school I would want my kid to go to (in general, but especially if they were gay). I'm not saying this as an absolute must - but I think it's worth at least broaching with the parents. I know if I could move half an hour and be in a climate that was exponentially more loving and supportive of my teenage son, I would.

If that's not an option, I really recommend finding a way for this kid to have regular, ongoing access to a supportive community through Lambert House or something similar. A monthly session with a therapist isn't going to cut it here - this kid needs ongoing love, support and community.

I wish you all the best - this kid is lucky to have you in his life.
posted by leitmotif at 6:35 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Slight update: the kid doesn't know his parent has accidentally discovered his sexual identity. They aren't sure how/whether to bring it up with him.
posted by sweltering at 8:10 PM on October 3, 2013

As a lesbian parent of a gay son I can tell you that it is SO much better now, and I would not jump to the conclusion that your friend's son is troubled by his sexuality. For my son at least, being gay is perfectly normal and not particularly difficult. I know it varies hugely from community to community and from school to school, and yes, coming out can still be hard, but it is no longer a given that being queer presents a problem. Because of this, I think it would be a mistake to conflate his behavioral issues with his sexuality. If he needs psychological or psychiatric help, his parents should get that for him without assumptions about what's causing it (yes, with a queer-friendly therapist, but I wouldn't send *any* kid to a therapist that wasn't). And I think his parents (and you) should let him come out in his own time. Cool big sisters are awesome no matter what. Be there for him and let him come out to you when he wants to. Please don't reach out to anybody about his sexuality, therapists or GSAs included, without his express permission. Outing people is never appropriate. If his parents need help processing things and want to know how to be supportive, there's always PFLAG.
posted by Wordwoman at 9:10 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

they should make vague comments about being accepting of GLBT people without going out of their way to make the statement.

they should level with their kid with a certain bargain: if they are dating someone age appropriate-ish (male or female) they can sleep over and have some privacy if and only if their child agrees to withstand their lecture on safe sex.

assuming the child is gay or bi or whatever can make them feel awkward, and forcing them to have an awkward conversation may not be great for their relationship. by giving them an incentive to level with you about safe practices about sex and relationships and not forcing something on them with help them transition to an adult-adult relationship with their kid.
posted by cupcake1337 at 10:44 PM on October 3, 2013

I used to tutor a very sweet and shy 16 year old who had recently had a suicide attempt and inpatient mental health stay. His (also extremely liberal) parents had me over for dinner one night when he was not home, to tell me that they suspected he was gay and to pick my brain on how I thought they should handle it (I am gay) as they thought it may have been a part of their son's mental health issues.

My advice was that they should not ask him about his sexuality, even if it would be in the "of course we would be totally supportive, you can tell us" vein, but that they should continue to show their general support of LGBT issues by making general statements of support (as cupcake1337 said above), commentary on news, etc, and as they had a very close gay family friend, by perhaps having him come over for dinner or what have you more frequently.

I was forced out of the closet by my now mother-in-law's discovery of my wife's journal when we were in high school, and despite the fact that my parents were more or less accepting, it was incredibly stressful and hard to deal with.

This was about 10 years ago, and in my liberal suburb, high school was a non-issue--we had a GSA, other LGBT students, I can only remember being bullied or harassed a handful of times. Most students and all teachers were incredibly supportive. There was a gay youth center a few towns over from me, and being able to go there and meet other queer kids was HUGE for me and my mental health. I would see if there is a similar program in the Seattle area--I would be surprised if there is not.

I'm sure he would love to have you in his life as a role model and proof of the fact that it DOES get better--in fact it gets awesome! Maybe carve out more time to hang out with him or arrange to do some kind of activity just the two of you--I had an older gay uncle and though I never straight up told him, every time I got to see him and hear about his life teaching and living with his partner, it made me so so happy.
posted by msjoannabanana at 7:59 AM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The parents may find John Schwartz's book Oddly Normal about his family's experience helping his gay son come out and deal with the social and mental health issues he encountered. (John is a friend but I'd be recommending the book regardless - it's great).
posted by leslies at 1:18 PM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all these great answers, guys. I'm overwhelmed! Really happy with the resources to inform my busy bodiness. About to go over again this weekend.
posted by sweltering at 6:23 PM on November 3, 2013

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