Psychologically Speaking

Lucas’s parents were consumed by the question of their son’s sexual identity, in parallel process with Lucas. Was he gay or not? What if he was? How could this have happened? How could they convince him he wasn’t? They were in alien territory. If they did not deny that Lucas was gay, they would feel ashamed of him and of what people would think. They would feel as if they had failed as parents. They would be scared for him, and discomfited.

Lucas, isolated and confused as a young teen, found pornography and used it for distraction and relief from painful feelings. He later used it as a way to test himself to determine his sexual identity. Lucas’ compulsive use of gay pornography sexualized his (gay) identity, associating being gay with the images depicted in gay porn.

A vicious cycle of overstimulation ensued which reinforced arousal and pornographic male imagery, as well as created distortions about what it means to be gay. Ultimately these factors, as well as Lucas’s need to test out whether he was gay, led to him rationalize his plan to go through with a random, unwanted sexual encounter to see how he would respond.

Ironically, in trying to find out who he was, Lucas betrayed himself and, in a style familiar to him from the dynamic with his parents, accommodated to what someone else needed from him. Lucas was unable to say no, acquiescing to have sex before he felt ready with someone he didn’t like and wasn’t attracted to, with whom he didn’t feel safe, and who was not his friend.

Jean and Bill, like many parents, did not recognize the danger of imposing their own needs and anxieties onto Lucas in the name of helping him. As long as they were in crisis and their emotional stability and acceptance of their son were contingent on him being straight, they would hijack their son’s ability to know and accept himself and, instead, force him to react to their conflict. This dynamic would pressure Lucas to both resist and conform to what he perceived his parents needed him to be and lead him to remain divided within himself. The likely result would be to drive Lucas to either break away by being gay or act out self-destructively or convince himself that he wasn’t gay and potentially betray his inner truth – leading to detachment, emptiness and depression.

Lucas’s internal conflict and uncertainty about his identity was bound up with the values he internalized from his parents. He was preoccupied with his parents’ disapproval, pretending he didn’t care but torn inside about who he was. Wanting things to be stable at home and, having learned from his mom’s drinking about keeping family secrets, Lucas kept his worries and turmoil underground. At the same time, he felt constrained by their image of him which they needed for themselves. This internal conflict and pressure was part of what drove Lucas to break out and unconsciously set himself up to be caught in a bold act which shattered his parents’ view of him, shocking them into facing their worst fears, and putting a stop to his out-of-control spiral.

In the midst of all the ensuing chaos, more important issues were overlooked — Lucas’s safety, state of mind, and well-being. A close relationship with parents has been found to provide the best insulation from dangers in the outside world. Conversely, if teens feel that their parents are ashamed of them, they are even more vulnerable to the effects of others shaming them. Lucas needed his parents to help him through this confusing time by being his ally and helping him learn to make safe decisions — understanding the risks and repercussions of actions that cannot be reversed.

Safety here includes being able to protect oneself emotionally and otherwise and is not specific to being gay. Being self-protective requires being educated about relationships, including power dynamics and sexual victimization, the difference between sex and intimacy, and one’s right to make choices. It involves judgment, self-control, the ability to say no and set boundaries, and the ability to anticipate consequences of one’s actions including how one will feel.

Teens are vulnerable in all of these areas, in terms of brain and social development. Protecting them involves making them aware of these vulnerabilities and of consequences of their actions. It involves creating a collaborative (vs. authoritarian or punitive) effort to establish guidelines for behavior and decisions as well as instituting appropriate external controls, for example, technical interventions regarding website access, supervision, etc.

Guidelines for Lucas were established in therapy and collaboratively with his parents. They included taking into account his vulnerabilities: refraining from gay sexual exploration until he felt more stable, deciding to only act on exploring gay sex after a thought-out rather than on-the-spot decision, and to be sure he felt safe and that the other person was his friend. Also, interestingly, prior to Lucas leaving home for college, his dad asked him if he thought it would be helpful to have controls on his laptop to limit website access to decrease temptation to use porn. Lucas seemed relieved and with his dad’s encouragement worked on researching and installing such controls.

Remember, before you take action with your teen, the most important way to be protective of him is to preserve the integrity of your relationship and be his ally. Only then will he be able to turn to you and others for help and not have to cover up to manage your state of mind.