Dear Your Teen,
Recently, my 11-year-old daughter became interested in all things LGBQT. She came out to me a couple of weeks ago as bisexual, or at the very least she believes she is. She is not sexually active in any way but feels, in her words, that she only crushes on girls mostly.
I support my daughter 100 percent and always will. Who she loves makes no difference to me.
But I also realize that at her age, identity is everything. Even when I was her age, the transition from child to young adult is dominated by a search for identity, almost a branding, and you latch on to whatever options are present for you at too much of an early age, in my opinion.
My advice to her was this: “Your sexuality is beautiful. It is precious. It is something of real value and you must treat as such, and it will reward you in kind.” I told her that sexuality can be very fluid, and that she should not become too attached to who or what she feels she is. When the time is right for her to explore these things, if she sees someone she likes, she should go talk to them. She can eventually ask them, “Do you like me?” and that’s it.
Later when she is more sure of her identity, and she wants to have it front and center or to get involved in a movement, by all means do so. But right now, I think it’s in her benefit to take her time.
Can give me any advice, especially on my suggestion that there is no rush to identify as anything just yet?
EXPERT | Shafia Zaloom
Dear Supportive Dad,
It is a testament to your relationship with your daughter that she feels safe to share how she’s feeling about her sexual identity. I encourage all parents to communicate the same perspective on sexuality: It’s positive, it’s fluid for many, and it’s something to be valued. Your approach is commendable, and I have a few points to add that I think will be helpful in your ongoing conversations with your daughter.
When Do You Know Your Sexuality?
Adolescence officially starts at age 11. As you mentioned, identity formation is a key development task during this stage. Many 11-year-olds will try on different identities. They are neurologically programed to explore identity and may experience and express feelings of permanence when it comes to their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.
Some people need language that feels more concrete when exploring identity. Others are more comfortable with the ambiguity of remaining fluid.
Adolescents are concrete thinkers, live very much in the present, and have intense emotional experiences. It’s possible that these thoughts and feelings about sexual orientation are ephemeral despite the fixed feeling your child expresses. And it’s also possible that her feelings aren’t fleeting and could eventually lead to an established identity that represents her true self. It’s hard to know and only time will tell.
I encourage parents to be flexible, take their kids seriously in the moment, and not try to define their feelings for them or push them to embrace one identity or another.
In response to their sharing, offer comments like, “How are you feeling about this today?” or, “I appreciate how thoughtful you are about all of this and that you feel like you can share it with me.” Resist putting an adult lens on your child’s experience, listen without judgment, and support their process with acceptance.
Early adolescence is also the era of the crush. Who kids crush on may inform their understanding of and relationship with their sexuality. Crushes also provide an opportunity for parents to talk about concepts of maturity, consent, what it takes to get to know someone authentically, and to help them expand emotional vocabulary.
In your letter, you said, “when the time is right for her to explore these things,” which is about an individual sense of readiness when it comes to physical and emotional intimacy. Readiness is so important in any conversation about emerging sexuality in young people. And you present a valuable opportunity to help her cultivate her intuition and autonomy, which will help her pace herself.
Consider questions that will guide her to self-reflection. Here are some questions:
Exploring Sexuality: Questions for Self-Reflection
“What do you value in your friendships?”
“How do people who care about each other treat one another?”
“How do you know you like them as more than a friend?”
“Is there trust?”
“Are you comfortable being yourself?”
“Do you understand consent?”
“Have you thought about why you want to express your feelings physically?”
“Do you want to feel closer or do you feel pressure to fit in or make someone else happy?”
“There are lots of ways to express affection, have you thought about what you are both comfortable with?”
As you continue to nurture this ongoing dialogue with your daughter, you are role modeling the most valuable lesson of all: what it looks, sounds, and feels like to be in a caring, loving relationship that includes healthy communication and acceptance.
Decades of research tells us that when we engage in consistent, straightforward, honest, and positive dialogue with our children about the joys and responsibilities of healthy bodies and sexuality, they are more likely to grow up to embrace bodily autonomy, make decisions in the interest of their sexual health, and have enriching relationships that are grounded in mutual respect, safety, care, and dignity.