Q: My 14 year-old claims to be gay. Help.

A: Right now, you may feel that you’re the only parent in the world facing this situation, but this question is one of the most common ones received by two of the guest panelists The Family Project ‘s parenting professionals recruited for help in answering it. Melinda and Don Kohn, who staff a helpline for parents sponsored by the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) say that there’s been a huge downward shift in the age when young people “come out” about homosexuality to their parents. Five or 10 years ago, the most common time was during the late-20s or early 30s, they say. Now, it’s the mid-teens.

But, panelists say, just because your child is now expressing a particular sexual preference doesn’t mean it’s his or her last word on the subject. During their teenage years it’s normal for kids to tend to “try on” different roles in a lot of areas of life, including sexuality, to see what fits them — or what shocks their parents. Because homosexuality is such a hot-button issue in the culture today, this may be an example of that kind of behavior. Also, they say, your child may be reacting to feeling different from other kids the same age, perhaps because of an interest or talent unusual among kids of his or her gender.

Inasmuch as “gay” is sometimes used by kids — both boys and girls — to describe other kids who don’t fit the current mold, your child might even be using the term without knowing what it means because others are calling him or her that.

On the other hand, many people who are homosexual say they knew their true sexual orientation by this age. If that’s the case with your child, the sooner he or she lets you know, the better it will be for both of you, says guest panelist Melinda Kohn. “Keep in mind that telling you is probably the hardest thing they’ve ever done,” she says. “They are terrified that you won’t love them or accept them as they are.” Indeed, even today, many people never tell their parents. “But in fact, your child needs love and support more than ever because they need to deal with a world that is not fully accepting of them,” Kohn says.

Nonetheless, she and other panelists acknowledge, your response to this news is likely to be very complicated. Parents say they usually have a powerful mix of emotions, colored by their personal experiences with gay and lesbian people, expectations for their child, religious and moral beliefs, and fears about how others will react to the child and what will happen to him and her in the future. And just as your child’s pronouncement may not be his or her last word on the subject, your first feelings are likely to change over time as well.

Honesty about them to yourself and with your child is probably the best course of action. And a certain amount of caution is also probably in order. “If you don’t know how to respond, it’s OK not to have an immediate response. You can say, “It’s a lot to understand, and I want to talk more about it and find out more,’ instead of going off on a reaction you can never take back,” says panelist Ann Friedenheim.

Adds panelist Bill Vogler: “I’d say A, don’t panic, and B, I’d thank him for telling me, and consider it a gift that he’s open to talking.” Guest panelist Eric Leadbetter, who helps organize activities for a support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning youth, says that no matter what you say or do, it’s likely to be seen at first as inadequate by a child in the emotional throes of trying to assimilate the information about himself or herself. But he recommends that you keep the dialogue open, even though that’s hard to do with teenagers in any case. “Even if you say, “That’s nice,’ and don’t say another word, it’s interpreted as you’re in denial or negative,” he says. Unfortunately, panelists say, they know of cases in which parents have forbidden gay teens to live at home or stopped speaking to their offspring for a long time after such a disclosure.

They hope you won’t do that, with several noting that the disclosure really hasn’t changed the child. “They’re still the same person they were the day before they told you,” says Roberta Zelleke. “The thing I keep coming back to is unconditional love,” says panelist Denise Continenza, “that parents have unconditional love for their child.”

Panelists note that conflicts about homosexuality, either within a teen or between a teen and his or her family, are at the root of many teen-aged runaway cases and suicide attempts. So, while panelists would never urge a parent to do anything against conscience, they hope you will remain loving towards you child and realize that both you and he or she will need a lot of information and support as you move forward.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. “You can decide to go on a long, involved road trip without a map, and still get there, but you’ll make a lot more wrong turns and mistakes,” says Vogler. “Why not just call and get a map?”

This article was reposted from Mcall.com

Originally posted 2011-12-09 00:17:09.