Family Therapy: Overcoming the Challenges and Celebrating the Joys of LGBTQ+ Parenting
by Catherine Morris | June 17, 2020
Parents know that raising a child is both the most rewarding and the most difficult thing they'll ever do. For LGBTQ+ parents there are even more challenges in the mix as discrimination, past personal traumas, and a lack of support can scupper efforts to develop a thriving family dynamic. Blended families, same-sex couples, trans spouses, married, single or cohabiting, the definition of family is incredibly broad, and it’s getting broader all the time. While we may celebrate the ongoing redefinition of the modern family, not everyone does. On major media outlets the dominant family structure represented is traditionally cis and heteronormative, leaving a lot of families feeling unseen, and uncertain.
For LGBTQ+ parents, navigating relationships both inside and outside the household can be a major source of stress and anxiety as they seek to follow their most basic parental instinct––to protect their kids. It's difficult to shield kids from negative influences in a world that often refuses to recognise the legitimacy of queer family structures.
The answer? Strong communication, ongoing dialogue, and a whole lot of compassion. Working with a family therapist who has experience with queer family structure can help equip struggling LGBTQ+ families with the tools they need to overcome some of the obstacles they may encounter on their quest to raise healthy and happy future adults.
The Journey to Parenthood
For LGBTQ+ parents the journey to parenthood is rarely straightforward. Assisted conception, surrogacy, fostering, adoption, and blending families by introducing a child from a previous relationship into a new family structure can take an emotional and financial toll. All too often it's an exhausting roller-coaster that can leave parents worn out before they can even begin to tackle the mundane parenting challenges of temper tantrums, dirty diapers, and last minute bake sale requests.
“For LGBTQ+ parents, there tends to be more work when it comes to having kids. There's the money, the risk, the planning, and all the discrimination that they face trying to become parents,” says Colette Mrazek, a clinical counsellor who specializes in youth and family therapy.
Grief over a failed surrogacy attempt or a miscarriage, PTSD after multiple invasive fertility treatments, or stress and anxiety following a lengthy adoption process––that's a lot to bring to a new family.
“Trauma dis-regulates us and LGBTQ+ parents are sometimes facing these extra issues,” says Mrazek who advises parents to be mindful of their own needs, and not just their kids. “Things that are not processed or healed come out in all sorts of ways. Self-awareness and self-compassion is so key for healing all those wounds.”
As well as supporting the parents in this journey, it’s important to ensure there’s no residual negativity in the home that kids might pick up on and, if the kids are aware of their parents struggles, a therapist can help to reframe that trauma as something ultimately positive.
Mrazek has worked with many young people from LGBTQ+ families during the course of her 20-year career, and says she likes to tell kids that all the hard work their parents went through to have them, makes them “extra wanted”.
Clinical counsellor Franya Jedwab works with LGBTQ+ parents at her Arukah Counselling practice and says the often traumatic road to building a family can make these parents especially resilient. “For families identifying on the LGBTQ+ spectrum the journey to parenthood may not be as simple, but it is undeniably a strong commitment and one that is done with intention and dedication.”
Building a Support System
With so many external challenges, it's crucial for LGBTQ+ parents to have a supportive network of people that they and their kids love, trust, and can rely on. Sadly building that community is often easier said than done.
For LGBTQ+ parents who are still struggling to gain acceptance within their own family, say with their parents or siblings, there may be deep-seated wounds that carry over to the next generation. “It is very impactful on the child whether the grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins are accepting or not, and not just accepting, but embracing,” says Jedwab. “The more support a family has, the better, but especially with an LGBTQ+ family where there may be more vulnerabilities.”
Jedwab says that developing clear communication can help, and sitting down with members of the wider family to give everyone a place to air their views can be the beginning of clearer communication. “The most important thing is to work to create empathy and understanding. If a family member feels judged, working to create a zone where everyone feels heard may bring about understanding. The goal is for everyone to feel closer, and to work with the vision of what the family wants to see happen.”
If conflict continues to arise, sometimes the best course of action is to walk away, painful as that may be. “In some cases it may be important and appropriate for LGBTQ+ families to have strong boundaries around their contact with relatives who are not accepting of their family,” says Jedwab.
Of course, communities can be built outside of established biological family relationships. Jedwab says school groups, teachers and counsellors can be very beneficial. Mrazek advises struggling parents to engage with other parents and families who face similar challenges, “The broader your community, the better off you are going to be. Having that peer support can help. One of the hardest things about parenting is feeling really alone. The less support you have, the more stress on [your] system.”
Communication and Compassion
Any family relationship is likely to founder if it's not underpinned by communication and compassion, but this is particularly true in LGBTQ+ households where self-acceptance can be a daily battle. The profound and damaging effect of being rejected by your own family, your community, and society as a whole can leave LGBTQ+ parents feeling like they will never measure up. Some scars are internal and a painful past can quickly lead to shame and negative self-talk.
“A parent might not have felt accepted and those kinds of issues will always come up in our relationships with our children. Some LGBTQ parents think 'I have to be that much better to make up for the fact I'm gay',” says Mrazek.
“Step one is coming to the table with a really clear sense of what is going on with you, how you are feeling, and what you need. Often the misstep [in a family dynamic] is that relationship you have with yourself. That is the beginning of healing.”
Just as parents should examine their own internal monologue, how they speak to themselves, they should examine how they talk to their kids. Keeping the lines of communication open allows LGBTQ+ parents to answer questions that may arise as their kids grow and learn about the world.
Entering the teenage years can be a particular trigger for kids in LGBTQ+ households. In cases where kids are unsure of their own sexual orientation or gender identity, it might bring up new feelings that are hard to process. This can also be a time when a teenager thinks about their own coming out, or reveals their family situation to their social circle for the first time. They may be experiencing bullying and mental health issues as a result, and that is incredibly difficult for any parent to watch, and navigate.
“Children [of LGBTQ+ parents] often face a lot more discrimination. They feel that difference and may start thinking 'there is something different about my family' or 'there's something different about me' and this requires an ongoing dialogue in families in order to support these experiences.
“With the complexities of LGBTQ+ families it is going to be an ongoing conversation as kids get older and enter new phases and ask different kinds of questions. When they encounter some of the hardships that go along with feeling different or face challenging questions, it makes it really important to come together as a family, and keep the conversation going.”
This generation of parents likely came of age in an era when a person who was coming out had a higher possibility of encountering hostility, discrimination, and rejection than they are today, in our in our increasingly progressive culture––at least, in some places. This gives them a unique insight into what their own child might be contemplating before coming out, according to Mrazek who says––
“Any time there is a shared experience, that is helpful. An LGBTQ+ parent is going to be so much more sensitive and careful with their children. They are going to examine themselves more, and be more careful with their assumptions and biases or language. In my experience, they are very educated, very aware, and very sensitive.”
However it's important to distinguish between sharing and learning from a past experience, and airing old traumas in a way that's not necessarily helpful. As with many aspects of LGBTQ+ parenting, it's about finding that delicate balance.
“In any family situation, it is important to be very aware of what we are sharing as parents and how that may impact our children. Is it for the benefit of the child or is it for my benefit? Be mindful of whether it's going to support your child or not. The child's experiences may be different than the parent's, but that does not make them less important. What we share as parents truly depends on the age, stage, and readiness of the child for the conversation.”
A More Mindful Household
Both Jedwab and Mrazek have noticed a pattern in their work with LGBTQ+ families––
“LGBTQ families tend to be more aware, more socially conscious and more community driven,” says Mrazek. “With parents who came out early in life and are clear in their identity, the kids will feel the impact of all that work and healing.”
Data on the children of trans parents is almost non-existent but a 2013 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics looked at over 30 years of research from the children of same-sex couples, and determined that kids in lesbian or gay households show high levels of emotional, social and psychological resilience, despite encountering stigma and economic and legal discrimination. By eschewing ‘traditional’ gender roles, LGBTQ+ parents can create a household that's not just more resilient, but also more egalitarian.
Jedwab says, “Often, children raised in an LGBTQ+ household are part of a diverse and progressive family system. There may be less social and gender constructs, which can be freeing and kids may grow up in a family environment that seeks equality, acceptance, and tolerance.”
When Therapy Can Help
When relationships break down inside the home, it can trigger a cascade of mental health issues, and lingering emotional pain. For LGBTQ+ families, therapists can be a vital part of building that all-important support system to help parents and kids cope in times of conflict.
A counsellor experienced in LGBTQ+ issues, and family therapy can give all members of the household the tools to deepen communication, withstand external triggers and develop a family framework that serves both parents and kids.
Jedwab says that no matter the treatment, self-compassion and honesty must come first––
“Underlying any kind of therapeutic relationship, it is important to be understanding of aspects of self that may be difficult to accept. Creating safety and an environment of acceptance is the baseline before any kind of counselling method or strategy can be useful. It is important to have that space, and to be honest with ourselves.
“Self-compassion is not something that just happens. It is a practice and something we have to make into a habit as we learn to appreciate who we are. This has a ripple effect and can greatly impact other family members, sometimes in amazing ways.”
Which Doctor is home to many licensed therapists, counsellors and life coaches who work with the LGBTQ+ community to give families of all types the support they need. If your need is more urgent or you'd like to reach out anonymously, there are a variety of LGBTQ+ helplines and resources available through Pflag Canada and the LGBTQ Parenting Network.