Help your kids develop a healthy sexual orientation

Supporting the healthy sexual identity development of youth: A primer for adults who live with or care about kids.

Human development educators and scholars have known for many years that one of the tasks of adolescence and young adulthood is forming a strong, positive sense of identity. A significant part of identity development is sexual identity. This holds true for everyone and includes those who are romantically and sexually attracted to the opposite sex, those who are attracted to the same sex and those who are attracted to all genders.

The development of sexual identity or a “sexual orientation” is a complex process of knowing which gender (or genders) one is romantically, emotionally, physically and sexually attracted to. For some people this identity becomes clear to them at a young age and remains a constant part of their identity throughout their lives. For others, the process of developing a sexual identity is layered, complex, contextual, changing and fluid. In other words, the process of sexual orientation identity may occur at age 14 or earlier for some and at age 40 or older for others. According to the American Psychological Association, research over several decades has demonstrated that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, from exclusive attraction to the opposite sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex.

According to Ritch Savin-Williams of Cornell University, same-sex-attracted teens are more similar than they are different from their opposite-sex-attracted peers. In his book, The New Gay Teenager, Savin-Williams stresses that just like their heterosexual peers, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people tend to achieve physical maturity during puberty, accumulate knowledge, think about future careers, develop a system of ethical values, negotiate family and peer relationships and begin to think about and explore arenas of sexual and emotional intimacy. He contends that the common image of gay youth presented by many health professionals as isolated, depressed, drug-dependent and even suicidal may be an exaggerated picture of the rich complexities of the lives of today’s sexual minority youth.

What is different and often difficult for many LGBT young people, as well as those who identify as queer and those who are questioning, is that they are growing up within relationships and systems that say that they aren’t “normal.” Many messages (overt and covert) refer to them as being sick, sinners, confused, damaged, mentally ill and accused of acting out or just going through a phase.  These messages can present real barriers to healthy development and emotional wellbeing. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), LGBT youth are also more likely to be marginalized within their families and get kicked out of their homes based on their sexual identity. Consequently these young people experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate.

Here are some suggestions for adults who want to support the healthy sexual orientation development of young people in their lives:

  • Research shows that young people are “coming out” or embracing their sexual identity more openly and at earlier ages. Talk about sexual orientation identity development as a natural, healthy and normal part of adolescent development.
  • If you are an adult who accepts and supports sexual minority youth, then make sure that your kids and their peers hear you actually say so. This might make you a safer and more accessible adult source of support to a young person who is finding their way and who may feel very alone and isolated.
  • Some sexual minority youth struggle as a result of challenges such as stigma, discrimination, homophobia, family disapproval, social rejection and violence. Consequently, young people may expend a great deal of energy denying and minimizing their feelings which can have negative consequences for their overall emotional health. Become an ally with youth and an advocate for social justice and positive change by connecting with a local PFLAG group or your school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA).
  • Don’t underestimate the power of language and labels. For some sexual minority youth, they reject labels like “gay,” “lesbian” and “bisexual.” Others prefer the term “queer” which provides important connection to a community of people who do not identify as heterosexual. Others connect with the historic and current gay civil rights movement and claim the identifier “gay” or “lesbian” for significant social and political reasons. It’s important to listen and not minimize the way people choose to self-identify.
  • Learn about the connections to issues of gender identity and expression, masculinity and homophobia and ways the “gender trap” limits the overall health and wellbeing of young people.
  • Address bullying, bias and harassment and work to create environments that are emotionally, spiritually and physically safe for all youth. Interrupt and challenge name-calling and bias-based language that target young people based on their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender expression and other aspects of human differences.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for parents, youth workers and other adults to learn more about issues of bullying, bias and harassment and ways to create safe, affirming and fair environments with and on behalf of young people.  For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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