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Ask The Expert: When Teens Explore Sexual Identity

Dear Your Teen:

I am a heterosexual man in my 40s with no previous knowledge that all the different sexual orientations existed! Please forgive my ignorance. I got a call from my 12-year-old-daughter’s school counselor. I was told that my daughter has been experiencing “overwhelming anxiety” and some depression for a few months.

After some discussion, my daughter opened to tell me to me that she had dated a girl. She is currently dating a boy. She explained that she believes that she is pansexual. And her anxiety and depression comes from her fear of telling me and my wife. I love my daughter unconditionally. And I support her no matter what. I’m learning all about pansexuality so that I understand and can be available to her.

Please help me with some ideas or tips to ensure she feels comfortable sharing anything.

The second part is more of a conceptual question. My daughter did state that she has only dated one girl and one boy. My question is: being that she is only 12 years old, without much life experience, is it possible that she is confusing the emotional connection with her female friend as romantic or sexual attraction? I am not minimizing or judging—I knew before I was 12 that I was attracted to girls, so I don’t question who she is attracted to. If my daughter is pansexual, then I just want to understand as best I can. Any information you can share is appreciated.

EXPERT | Matthew Rouse, PhD, MSW

This father is doing everything right when it comes to addressing his daughter’s sexual identity. But before getting into the specifics of the question, I want to commend him (and all of the parents who contribute, comment, and read this magazine) for his pursuit of information about parenting. I read recently that there’s no such thing as a “parent,” only a “parent-in-training.”

This resonated with me because no parent has all the answers, and parenting is a lifelong endeavor in an ever-shifting landscape. In my clinical practice, I appreciate parents who are reflective, sometimes questioning their own responses, and always seeking out better tools. I believe that self-examination and a willingness to adapt leads to better and better parenting practices. And that can only lead to better lives for the children. This father’s advice-seeking is a reflection of that positive parenting mindset.

How to Support Your Daughter:

1. It’s still hard to come out in our culture.

This parent expresses some guilt about his daughter’s hesitation in approaching him about her sexual identity. But the dad seems very open and communicative. So, my guess is that his daughter’s anxiety has less to do with her dad and more to do with societal messages about sexual identity.

Most people are not aware of the messages that are subtly communicated on a daily basis about sexual identities that differ from the norm. Negative depictions of sexual minorities in the media. The lack of representation of diverse sexual identities in visible places like movies, sports, and politics. And the default assumption of heterosexuality that permeates social interactions.

These all convey the message that an alternative sexual identify is something to be ashamed of. That’s a lot for any parent to overcome, no matter how supportive and accepting. In short, don’t beat yourself up for something that is truly beyond your control.

2. Your teen may still be hesitant to talk.

I do want to give a word of slight caution. As parents, you can and should do everything you can to create a warm, nurturing environment of acceptance. However, as the “you can lead a horse to water” adage says, it won’t always translate into your teens opening up to you about everything.

As teens develop, they look to their friends more and more and to their parents less and less for support and advice. This is completely normal. Keep the door open for communication, but resist the urge to push or pry. It will only have the opposite effect of the one you intend.

3. Non-judgmental acceptance is best.

Finally, regarding his daughter’s stated sexual identity, the best approach is one of non-judgmental acceptance. It’s true that a 12-year-old may not understand the complexities of romantic attractions versus friendship attractions. She may not identify as pansexual for the rest of her life.

However, it’s her journey of self-discovery and not for anyone else to dictate.

I imagine it may be tempting to ask questions like, “Are you sure you’re pansexual?” or “How do you know what you are until you’re sexually active?” However, those questions communicate subtle disapproval. Let her take the lead on how she wants to talk about her developing sexual identity, withholding any impulse that comes up to set her straight (pun intended).

Matthew Rouse, PhD, MSW

Matthew Rouse is a clinical psychologist specializing in the assessment and treatment of ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders, as well as other disorders that may contribute to behavioral difficulties in children and adolescents.