As part of our “Love Essentially” series, Jackie Pilossoph helps us navigate the complex world of relationships. Have a question that you would like her to answer? Contact her here, and it may be featured in an upcoming article!
“Living in hell” is how Heather Hester describes a teenager who is gay and who has yet to come out.
“They have thought about and practiced telling you a million times,” she said. “Telling you and having you accept it is the most important thing to them.”
Hester’s opinion comes from the heart. Three years ago, her son, Connor, then 16 years-old, told Hester and her husband, Steve, he was gay.
“We were on a trip with friends in Arizona and my parents were watching the kids,” said Hester, a Wilmette mom of four. Connor is the oldest. “My mom called me and told me Connor left the house and no one knew where he was. I started calling him and he wasn’t answering, and when he finally called me back he was crying and said, ‘I have to tell you something. I’m gay.’”
Hester said she was immensely relieved that her son was OK, but that what he had just declared “blindsided” her.
“We had no idea. He’s just a great kid, a rule follower who was like a camp counselor to the neighborhood kids,” she said. “He had been struggling with anxiety for some time and it was getting worse. He was in therapy and we were trying to manage it, but now, looking back, he had known for three years and I have thought about it a million times–how hard his life must have felt.”
Hester’s next questions to herself began with the word how.
“I thought, ‘How are we going to do this? How do we support him? We have zero experience in this area, we don’t know who to talk to or where to find information, and clearly he is super fragile right now and a mess,’” she said.
The next few months were “extremely bumpy,” according to Hester. She said Connor was happy his family knew, but now he wanted external validation, which led to dating apps, sneaking out of the house, smoking, vaping, drinking, self-harm, and severe depression and anxiety.
After a suicide attempt, the Hester’s placed Connor in an intensive residential therapeutic program in California, followed by a therapeutic boarding school in North Carolina. Hester said while Connor was away and working on himself, so was the rest of their family.
“It’s a process for parents, too,” she said. “From the time our kids are babies and we watch them grow, we begin to see their unique traits and you start to build this movie in your head which includes what they might do when they grow up, who they are going to marry, and typically, in that movie reel your child is straight. So, when your child comes out, it’s totally OK to take that time to mourn that change in your movie reel. You realize it’s going to be different and that’s OK. It’s sad, but now I’m excited and curious.”
Because it wasn’t easy to find resources and support for parents of LGBTQ kids, Hester started her blog and podcast, “Chrysalis Mama” in 2018. Describing herself as “an avid journalist and random writer,” Hester, who holds a degree in business and communication spent 10 years working as an editor and writer for the family North Shore business, Hester Painting and Decorating.
“We had felt so alone, and realized there are thousands of people like us who are feeling this way and it’s a horrible way to feel,” said Hester. “I wanted people to know that they aren’t alone and that others have gone through similar experiences.”
Perhaps her biggest piece of advice for parents:
“What’s the number one thing not to say when your child comes out? ‘Are you sure?’ They are sure. Trust me. It’s super hard just to be a teenager. Then you add coming out and it’s even harder. No kid wants to be different. There’s also confusion and anger. ‘Why am I gay? Why did God make me this way?’ ‘What if no one will accept me?’ It’s terrifying for them.”
Where is Connor today? The 20-year-old is a sophomore at NYU, studying engineering. Hester said her son is still in therapy, and that he has a lot of friends, enjoys working out, and is in a relationship.
Here are Hester’s 9 pieces of advice for parents of an LGBTQ child:
1. Let them know you love them no matter what – above all else, kids need to know that their parents unconditionally love them.
2. Educate yourself through books, articles, podcasts and what it means to be LGBTQ.
3. Allow yourself time to process and grieve.
4. Find support through therapy for yourself and for your child. Ask for their patience as you work through with a therapist, which also models for them that it is ok to be vulnerable with a therapist.
5. Facebook groups are fantastic places online and in person (when we’re allowed to again!) to meet and talk with other parents of LGBTQ kids.
6. Keep communication open and work on being non-judgmental, safe, listening ears for your teen. Validate their feelings and really see them. When they feel seen and understood, they will share and trust.
7. Understand the role mental health plays. Our adolescents, teens, and young adults have a million stimuli coming at them 24/7 – it literally never stops for them. Their brains are developing at fast pace during these years and the frontal lobe (impulse control, decision making) doesn’t fully develop until around age 25. In addition, their hormones are all over the board. Add genetic and environmental factors to this and it is no wonder mental health struggles are skyrocketing with our young people. Our LGBTQ youth are much more susceptible to anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies and self-harm.
8. If you have religious concerns of fears, please do not express these to your child. They have likely considered that.
9. Create an environment that allows for shifts, growth, and mistakes. Oh my gosh, did we make a million it seems. However, it turns out that it is good for our kids to realize we are human.
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Jackie Pilossoph is a former television journalist and newspaper features reporter. The author of four novels and the writer of her weekly relationship column, Love Essentially, Pilossoph is also the creator of the divorce support website, Divorced Girl Smiling. Pilossoph holds a Masters degree in journalism and lives in Chicago with her two teenagers.