Jean and Bill sought a psychological consult regarding their youngest son, Lucas, a senior in high school. Bill described a text message he found on Lucas’s phone to a boy from school confirming that he would be coming over for “man sex.”
Not long before this incident, Bill had gone into his son’s room and found Lucas quickly covering his computer screen. Bill asked his son what he was looking at and, without much struggle, Lucas showed him a male porn site.
Lucas’s parents wanted to know what to do and what to say to Lucas. They didn’t want to do the wrong thing and make things worse. Despite feeling panicked, Lucas’s mom and dad presented themselves in a composed and engaging manner. They struggled to try to make sense of why their son would think he was gay and said they didn’t believe that he really was. No one else in their family had ever had these issues.
In their description of Lucas, they offered that he did not appear effeminate or have other “signs” of being gay. They described him as a follower and insecure and wondered whether he was just wanting to fit into the group of kids most likely to accept him, especially since they had just moved to Boston only a year ago. They were also suspicious about the role of the other boy in seducing him.
Bill and Jean had been going over Lucas’ history in their minds — particularly experiences with girls — searching for answers. They thought it was significant that, not long ago, he had been rejected by a girl he had been dating. They also pointed out when he was 12, they discovered that he was frequenting heterosexual porn sites, and at that point, limited his computer use.
Lucas’s parents admitted that they were relatively traditional in their values and did not want their son to be gay. They believed that Lucas knew their views about this issue and how they would feel if he were gay. Jean described having reacted to the news of this incident by becoming tearful and a bit angry. She initially resisted the idea of letting Lucas know that she would love and accept him no matter what, fearful that this would involve giving him “permission” to be gay and, therefore, encourage him. She informed Lucas that being gay would be an undesirable, difficult lifestyle for him and challenged him about why he would choose that. She seemed to believe she could scare or force Lucas out of thinking he was gay and gave him mixed messages about how she felt.
Despite internally feeling similar to his wife, Lucas’s dad had what he described as an accepting and open talk with Lucas after he found the text. Bill reported that in his talk with his son, he was focused on trying to find out whether Lucas knew for sure at this point that he was gay. In response, Lucas denied knowing or thinking he was gay and said he was just confused — providing some needed reassurance to his parents.
Lucas was 17. His manner and speech immediately displayed stereotypical gay affectations. He readily opened up and seemed curiously eager to announce matter-of-factly that he had been struggling for years with secretly feeling attracted to boys and hiding it from his parents.
Lucas claimed he had never acted on his “crushes” — never consummating anything sexual with another boy. He discussed his recent planned encounter and revealed that the other boy, who was “out” as gay, approached him in a rather persistent and persuasive way. The other boy had assumed that Lucas was gay but maybe had not yet come to terms with it, wanting Lucas to explore that with him. Lucas noted that, although he had felt attracted to boys, he was not attracted to this boy at all but capitulated — hoping that this experience would help him find out whether he was gay or not. Interestingly, he said he was actually relieved when his father “busted” him so that he wouldn’t have to go through with it.
Lucas came across as a kid who was unsure of himself but covered it up with an air of bravado. He seemed a bit mad at his parents and had a slightly rebellious, sarcastic tone in talking about them with regard to this issue. He assumed I already knew what happened when he was alone with his mom at home the day following the discovery of the text message. I told him I didn’t.
Lucas proceeded in telling the story with gusto, but asked me not to let on to his parents that I knew because he felt that they would be even more upset with him. Lucas went on to describe his mom as having become hysterical after finding out about the text, going on a drinking binge, crying and yelling out of control in desperation and despair.
Lucas told me without hesitation that his parents could not handle him being gay, and that he knew he was disappointing them. He said that he was confused about himself anyway but believed he was gay more than he would let on to them.
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.
Tips for Parents of Gay Sons and Daughters
What to Say: Do’s and Don’ts
- Don’t try to talk your son out of being gay. Recognize that trying to persuade him that he’s not — or should not — be gay will surely backfire for him and your relationship and give him the message that he cannot turn to you.
- Recognize that you do not have the power or capacity to influence whether your teen is in fact gay. You do have the power to influence how he feels about himself.
- Change the focus from whether your son is gay to understanding how he is feeling, and his concerns.
- Help your teen sort out his concerns about what you feel and think about him from how he feels about himself.
- Talk about safety issues in a separate (and dispassionate) conversation in which you are both on the same team. Find out what worries your son and where he thinks he could run into trouble, and share your ideas and concerns. Authoritarian approaches are unsuccessful here.
- Get your teen’s collaboration and input in establishing protective guidelines and limits (see example in text). Be honest with yourself and aware of any hidden agenda to scare or dissuade him from his sexuality in the guise of being protective. This will cause you to lose credibility and potentially encourage him to do the opposite of what you tell him.
How To Handle Your Own Feelings
- Get help. Make an explicit commitment to yourself and your son to work toward being open to understanding and accepting him for who he is.
- Delegate one parent to be the main point of contact with your son. This should be the parent who can best manage feelings and has the best relationship with your son (unless both of you manage your feelings equally well and have a good relationship with him).
- Contain your feelings and prepare in advance for difficult conversations. Engage in such discussions only when you are in a state of composure.
- Stay calm and resist your need to get your son to reassure you.
- Notice your tone and words. Remove yourself from escalating conversations and take a timeout.
- Refrain from interrogation, blame and lecture.
- Be aware of your implicit views and feelings on homosexuality and sexuality. Know that these views, and your true feelings about these issues and about your son, are transmitted to your children unconsciously. Shame is contagious.
- Acknowledge your biases and anxieties as such, rather than acting as if they are facts or truths.
- Don’t lie or pretend. Lying and keeping family secrets teaches your children to do the same.
- Create an atmosphere of acceptance and trustworthiness, so that your son will feel a safe haven and be more likely to talk to you. For example, show integrity by taking responsibility and apologizing when you take things personally or otherwise react from your own anxieties. Tell him you know that responding reflexively from your own biases adds to his burden and confusion. Acknowledge that it is your job, not his, to take care of yourself and to manage your own feelings and reactions.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.