“Mom, Dad… can I talk to you about something?”
First disclosures are often difficult for everyone involved. They may include your kid telling you that they identify with the (LGBTQ+) community, meaning that they do not identify as heterosexual, or gender normative. They may have just told you that they have been self harming for 2 months, or that they have been feeling suicidal. Or maybe they have told you that they are pregnant, or their partner is.
If your kids come to you with issues like these, it can feel especially stressful if the disclosure makes you worry for your kid’s safety. Alternatively, it can feel upsetting in a different way if their disclosure makes you question everything you have ever known. Either way, if you, as the parent/caregiver, have the tools necessary to deal with these situations, it could turn what could be a negative impact, into a positive experience.
As a general rule, regardless of the disclosure, try to stay calm. Finding out something difficult – or just different from what you expected – can be a challenge for some parents. Managing your own feelings while showing support for your child is especially challenging.
If you need a moment to gather yourself, it is okay to excuse yourself and let your kid know that you just need some time to digest it, that their feelings are important to you, and you want to make sure that you can be present for them. If you need some outside support in the moment, please get in touch with your local distress centre. They can talk you through your feelings, and help you to prepare yourself to go back to the conversation with your child.
It is okay that you are not familiar with the concerns that your kid is talking about. Can you use this opportunity with your child to learn more about it? Your curiosity will come in handy here. It may help to let your kid know that you’re curious, and may have a lot of questions. They may be more open to talking about it with you because of this approach.
Addressing safety concerns
Safety concerns need to be addressed immediately. Your kid may not say outright that they are feeling suicidal. Instead, they might joke about it, or talk about someone famous who committed suicide. These are all cues to talk about suicide some more. Something very important to keep in mind is that asking someone if they are feeling suicidal, or have had thoughts of suicide, will not make them think of it as an option. It will, however, reduce the stigma they may feel about talking about it. If they say that they are feeling this way, my next suggestion is to ask if they have a plan. Sometimes, people will say no… or they may have thought about different ways to die. If they HAVE a plan, with a lot of details, I would suggest taking them to the hospital immediately. A detailed plan shows that they have put a lot of thought into it, and they need immediate help. If you are unsure, I would suggest erring on the side of caution, and getting help.
No suicide plan
In the event that your child does not have a plan, but has thought about suicide, there is an opportunity to talk about feelings and circumstances vs. suicide. The most drastic difference between the two is that the former is temporary and the latter is permanent. So, what would need to change in order for your child to feel more hopeful? Sometimes, ongoing counselling is necessary, to help them cope with the feelings and situations going on for them. In the moment, however, what sorts of things help them to feel hopeful? What has helped them to keep going all this time? Additionally, kids 20 and under can always call Kids Help Phone in Canada at 1-800-668-6868 or www.kidshelpphone.ca to speak with a free, confidential, and anonymous professional counsellor. You might even want to try calling them with your kid to introduce them to the service.
Not suicidal, but still very concerning
Self harming is another safety concern. It is something that people might do as a way of trying to cope with how they are feeling. Keep in mind that if they are telling you about it, they likely know that there are healthier ways of coping, and they are looking for support. As their parent, or someone close to them, you may be too close to be able to support them in the ways that a counsellor or therapist would. Professionals can take a step back from the situation, and look at it with an unbiased perspective, and emotional distance – while still caring for your child.
In the moment, if your kid is struggling with self harming, see if they would be willing to give you what they use to self harm. I would suggest approaching it from the perspective of “what would help you to feel better about giving it to me?” My guess is that they would need some other way to cope with their feelings in the moment. This could be a good opportunity to brainstorm (maybe with them?) activities to do when they feel like self harming. This list may include talking to you, doing art, taking a bath, talking to a friend, or listening to music. That might be a good starting point, to get the ball rolling.
The LGBTQ+ has become more prominent, in the past 30-40 years, but even in the past 5-10 years, the community has gained a considerable amount of traction. In larger communities, like Toronto, the community is much more visible. Some may say that now more than ever, people feel more comfortable to come out as their most accurate self. In many families, gender normativity is not the norm. And straight people who, 10 years ago, may have never embraced and stood behind this community, are stepping up and uniting with the them as allies. If you are worried about your kid not being accepted for their lifestyle choice, just keep in mind that the LGBTQ community is growing. And there is strength – and support – in numbers.
If you are struggling with supporting your kid in their lifestyle choice, there is support out there. In Toronto, this is one of my specialties. I can help you to cope with these changes, and learn more about supporting your kid. Additionally, there are also groups with which you could connect. Check out www.pflag.org, and there are educational resources at www.egale.ca.
“I’m pregnant, pass the potatoes”
Pregnancy is another disclosure that might elicit similar emotions in you, as the parent. What will your kid decide, with regards to the pregnancy, and how you help them explore their options? You may struggle with your kid’s decision , as you may differ in values when it comes to pregnancy choices. Helping them to make the best choice for themselves, as a result, can be very trying.
This sort of disclosure can be particularly distressing, because the parent or caregiver can feel guilty for not protecting their child from this harm. Please keep in mind that it is not your fault, and sexual predators can be very skilled at hiding information, and manipulating children to remain quiet about it. The most important thing for you to do as the receiver of this information is to believe the child. It is also your responsibility to get in touch with the authorities (either the police or child protection services), who will be able to investigate the disclosure. As the parent or caregiver, you cannot be in that role – most importantly, you need to support your child, and be there for them while they are dealing with this. It would also be significantly important for the child to see a counsellor or therapist (look for trauma-focused play therapists, and others who specialize in counselling children and youth – please contact me for more information, or help dealing with this moment of disclosure). The child needs a chance to process what they have been through, regardless of how many times it happened, who the perpetrator was, the quality of other relationships in their lives, or any other factors.
Sometimes, parents find out about something going on with their kid in more indirect ways. I have talked to parents who have noticed scars, or their kid seems to be losing weight quickly. Maybe a parent has accidentally tripped on an open journal – and what was written caught their eye. Or maybe they just know that something is up. It is okay to ask them about it. Keep in mind that they are not obligated to tell you – kids might just need to warm up to the idea of telling you. But what you can do in that moment is let them know that you are available to talk – or encourage them to get in touch with Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or www.kidshelpphone.ca.