Grandparents and seniors are important role models in the lives of young people.
They may share family traditions or memories of the past, teach life lessons or be confidantes. Young people may enjoy spending time with them to share a laugh or watch a sport or take part in a favorite pastime.
Because of this long-trusting relationship, grandparents may also play an important role during the coming-out process. When the young person in your life sits down with you to share this personal news about their sexuality, it is important to be both empathetic and educated.
The acronym LGBTQIA stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and asexual or ally. No matter if you expect the news or are shocked, your understanding and ability to be a good listener will be greatly appreciated by the young person in your life.
It is initially important to know that the process of coming out is unique for each individual. This is a deeply personal decision that the young person has made to talk with you and share this information about their gender identity or sexual orientation.
The young person may feel scared, confused and vulnerable. This is an opportunity to strengthen your relationship and be a mentor and advocate, if you choose, for the individual confiding in you.
Based on your reaction, you may develop closer ties and help the individual strengthen their self-esteem. If you are critical, the result may be negative, so it is important to not overreact and give yourself time to absorb the information.
- Be calm. The young person in your life is concerned about your reaction and sharing deeply personal information. They are concerned about how to share this information and are hoping that you will accept them. It is OK to take time to react as long as your response is not negative or degrading.
- Let the young person lead the way. Try not to ask too many questions. This is a sensitive and precarious time. Trust the young person in your life to make the decisions about the amount of information they wish to share and the pacing of the disclosure.
- Don’t force the young person to state their identity. It is important for the individual to take the lead in stating their identity. Questions from a grandparent or other close older adult may make them uncomfortable and cause them to end the discussion prematurely.
- Be a support system. The young person has come to you for an important reason. You want them to feel comfortable returning to you for future discussions and feel that the decision to have this discussion was warranted. Not everyone in the young person’s life will be positive and affirming.
It will mean a great deal to the individual if you can be a source of future support and guidance. Some family members and friends will be shocked, while others may be negative and critical. Some relationships will change and some will permanently end. It is important that, despite your feelings, you remain a supportive person in the life of the young adult who is coming out.
This is not an easy experience for you or the young adult. It may be a time of grief and loss of a previously expected future. It may also be a time of education and personal growth. It may be a time of tolerance and accommodations. It may be a time of family growth and relationship changes.
Remember that the young person in your life wants you involved; they would not come to you otherwise. There will be changes, and they will be achieved together.
Marcy Shoemaker, Psy.D., is a staff psychologist at Abramson Center.