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How Parents React to a Child ‘Coming Out’

So, inevitably, I want to jump on the narrative that is developing (at pace) about Netflix’s amazing new series, ‘Heartstopper’. If you haven’t heard about this yet, the series has been developed from Alice Oseman’s graphic novel series of the same name, and tells the story of a group of teenagers dealing with sexual orientation, gender identity, friendship and social standing during these incredibly formative years. There is a particular focus on the relationship between Charlie, an openly-gay student that’s finding his place in the world now that everyone knows his sexuality, and Nick, the popular, good looking, sporty guy that everyone likes. It’s a 5-star review from me – I haven’t been moved so much by a piece of media since the movie ‘Beautiful Thing’. Wonderfully written, beautifully acted, expertly crafted and with a killer soundtrack, it’s everything I want in entertainment and more. I can’t recommend it enough.

As a gay man that was a teenager in the 90’s, in a world still terrified by HIV and AIDS, high school was a tough gig. I relate hugely to the character of Charlie. I was his age when I came out, it was tough, and like Charlie, all I really wanted was to feel the same sense of connectedness that a lot of my peers had. At 14, most of my friends were experimenting with romantic relationships, boyfriends and girlfriends, but exclusively heterosexual relationships. There were only 1 or 2 other ‘out’ gay pupils in my whole school, and none in my year. I would have loved to have had a boyfriend. And so, I have watched Charlie with a mixture of empathy, pride and envy, and a lot of articles I’ve read over the last week or so have said the same thing – those of us in the LGBTQ+ community who are now in our 40’s can’t help but grieve for the ‘Charlie’ experience that we never had.

Now, if you haven’t watched it yet, you may not want to read on, as there’s a few spoilers. There’s a particular scene in the show (right at the end, in fact) that sucker-punched me and has stayed with me. For me, coming out at school was of course a big deal, but the biggest hurdle when coming to terms with your sexuality is coming out at home. Sure, rejection from peers is a horrible thing to face into, but nothing is worse that rejection from your primary caregivers. That can actually break your life. In the show, we don’t see Charlie’s coming out – he’s already out by the time we meet him (and has a sort-of-boyfriend who wants to keep him way on the down-low) – but we hear that he was badly bullied and it was an awful time for him. It is actually through Nick that we see the journey of exploring and coming to terms with sexuality. Nick believes himself to be straight, but experiences feelings for Charlie that he’s never had for another boy before, which understandably confuses him (I just wanted to hug him when he professes to having “a full-on gay crisis”). Throughout the show, Nick allows his feelings and his relationship with Charlie to unfold, all the while seeking to understand if he can label his own sexual orientation. Now, as much as labels can be a bad thing, they can also be helpful for young people who don’t yet know who they are. Nick isn’t forced to label himself, but we can see that he would find it useful for his own sense of self if he could. He eventually lands on ‘bisexual’ as the orientation he relates closest to, and the relief is palpable. He first comes out to Charlie (who is obviously elated), but next decides to come out to his Mum.

This scene – written by Oseman, and performed by Kit Connor and the magnificent Olivia Colman – is a masterclass in how to respond to your child if they come out to you. And here’s why.

She gives her full attention. In the scene, Nick’s Mum immediately senses that her son has something important to say. She takes her attention away from her iPad, turns to face him and gives him her full attention. Now, we all know kids have no sense of timing, often throwing out question after question without a thought for whether the parent is able to focus on them at that point. It’s up to parents to read the situation and discern if this next question is “have you seen my other red sock?” or “can I talk to you about my sexuality?”. It then speaks volumes to the child what you do next. Carrying on with what you’re doing sends the sub-conscious message that what your child needs to say isn’t important enough to warrant your full attention and therefore could, unintentionally, shoot them down. In this scene, Nick’s Mum identifies quickly that this is something serious, and therefore warrants her full attention. Which she gives.

She listens. As Nick begins to talk, she simply sits and listens. There are a few pauses in his speech, but she feels no desire to fill them. She gives him the time and space to say what he needs to say. You see, young people aren’t as emotionally literate as adults. It can take them longer to say what they need to. They might go around the houses a bit, or struggle to find the words. It’s important here to let them try, and not feel the need to fill in the blanks or second guess what they’re trying to say. You might offer some words of encouragement, but that’s all. Listening and giving complete attention sends another sub-conscious message – “I’m taking this seriously and your voice deserves to be heard”. This is crucial for forming a healthy level of self-esteem. Where do we get the sense that we’re ok as a human being if not from our primary caregivers?

She doesn’t bring her ‘stuff’ to the table. Many parents, understandably, feel a sense of fear and anxiety at the thought of a child facing into challenge. Like it or not, being gay can still be tough, and for heterosexual parents who have their own idea of normalcy, the instant reaction can be that not being ‘normal’ can be challenging, and any parent would be fearful of this. This fear can absolutely affect how a parent responds. All of their worries and protective instincts come rushing to the surface, and those emotions can govern the behaviour. For Nick, it was so important that his mother keep a lid on her own emotions and hold the space for his. For all we know, she may have been having a full-on panic in her head, but this didn’t show in her response to him. His revelation was about him, and whatever ‘stuff’ it brought up for her was not for putting on him. She may talk about her fears to a friend, do some research or even seek counselling. But as the parent, it was so important that she contain her emotions for now, in order to hold space for Nick to fully own his.

“Thank you for telling me. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel like you couldn’t tell me that”. If I could offer all parents a stock response to their child coming out, it would be this. The literal and sub-conscious messages are so powerfully positive. Firstly, thanking them conveys gratitude for the enormity of the gift you’ve just been given, and the courage it took to give that gift. It says that you don’t feel entitled to ‘own’ this part of your child, and in many ways, it might be the first thing you allow them to own and respect their ownership of. Secondly, acknowledging or apologizing for the part that you own – in this case, it was creating an environment where the child feels safe enough to be themselves, be brave, be vulnerable and be connected to you as the parent. The implied message - "you are always safe enough here to tell me anything". The irony of this scene is that Nick’s Mum never made him feel that he couldn’t tell her. Once he’d defined his sexuality, he almost immediately shared it with her. But she was still humble enough to acknowledge how big of a deal it was, and how even after 16 years, she still needs to earn her child’s trust and respect – it’s never something she is entitled to.

She gets curious – enthusiastically so! She enquires, with genuine curiosity about how long he’s known. This gives him permission to talk more, safely, and her tone implies that she is interested. For parents, a child’s sexual awakening can be awkward and embarrassing for both of you, whatever the orientation. The safest way to help your child navigate this is to create an environment where dialogue is encouraged. It’s highly likely that, in the wake of this response from his mother, Nick will feel more able to talk to her about other issues. Sex, contraception, love and all the other elements that come with adult relationships. Had she responded in any other way, either by conveying her fear or disappointment, by trivialising his revelation with a response like “are you sure it’s not just a phase?”, or by challenging him, she could well have kissed goodbye to any honest dialogue in the future. Which then begs the question – who does he talk to about the stuff that comes next now?

My coming out experience actually wasn’t that bad. But I still hear horror stories, even now, 28 years after I came out, in a very different time, of parents and caregivers struggling with the revelation, and reacting in ways that can be more damaging than they could ever realise. I’m so grateful to “Heartstopper”, Alice Oseman, Kit Connor and Olivia Colman for giving every parent out there a blueprint to create the safest possible experience for children that may want to come out. The show may focus on many themes aimed at young people – coming-of-age, sexual orientation, trans-awareness and teenage friendships – but it is this final scene that makes the show compulsory viewing for anyone of any age that might one day find themselves in front of a brave, vulnerable child that just wants to be themselves.

Plus, it’s a bloody lovely story.

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