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Seasons of Change

Embracing your college student’s sexual orientation

Your daughter, home from college for winter break, normally helps you hang the Christmas lights and decorate the tree, but she seems disinterested and down. You know she just broke up with her boyfriend, so you ask if she is missing him.

“That’s not it, Mom. I’m not sad about the break up. I’ve just been questioning who I am lately. I never really felt close to my boyfriend, and lately I’ve been feeling attracted to my best friend. I’m wondering if I’m bisexual or gay.”

We notice physical changes when our children come home from college - longer hair, a butterfly tattoo on the ankle, another piercing in the ear. But we can be less aware of the internal transformation taking place. As their awareness and acceptance of their sexuality grows, big changes can occur.

Flickr/Thomas Toft
Source: Flickr/Thomas Toft

While a survey of college students showed that the majority - 80.4 percent – identified as heterosexual, the other 19.6 percent revealed a wide diversity in sexual orientation. 6 percent identified as asexual, 5.5 percent as bisexual, 1.8 percent as gay, 1.1 percent as lesbian, and 1.5 percent as pansexual. The rest (3.7 percent) described themselves as queer, same gender loving, questioning, or another identity. The spectrum of sexual orientation may be wider than we previously understood.

How would you react if your daughter reveals she is bisexual or your son says he is gay? Your love, support, and acceptance are essential to their wellness. A study of 21 to 25 year olds who were gay, lesbian or bisexual showed that those who experienced little or no rejection from parents regarding their sexual orientation were much less likely to become depressed, attempt suicide, use drugs, and have unprotected sex compared with those who experienced higher levels of rejection. In my work with college students who have diverse sexual orientations, I see the benefits of parent acceptance as well as the harm of rejection.

If your college student says he is gay, bisexual, or questioning his sexual orientation, here are some tips for how you can be helpful. Remember, he is closely watching your response.

1. Listen carefully to what your child says and respond in a nonjudgmental tone. Ask questions if you don’t understand something. Tell your son you’re glad he feels comfortable opening up to you.

2. Learn your child’s preferred language for describing sexual orientation. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual are pretty standard terms, but the language around sexuality continues to evolve. Pansexual, for example, describes an attraction to anyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, including a transgender person. GLAAD, an advocacy organization, offers a glossary of various terms.

3. Show support and acceptance of your child even if you are struggling with your feelings. You may have questions. Will your lesbian daughter have children? Will she be discriminated against or shunned by others? You can join your local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) to find groups and activities that support gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and their families.

4. Promote safe sex, just as you would if your child were heterosexual. Gay and bisexual men are at increased risk for HIV infection, so encourage condom use. If your son or daughter is in a monogamous relationship, recommend testing for HIV before unprotected sex occurs.

5. Encourage your child to get support from campus resources if he is feeling alone or facing rejection from his peers. While most college communities are very diverse and accepting, some students can still feel like they don’t fit in. Joining a campus support group for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) students can lead to a greater sense of social belonging.

6. Encourage your child to get help with a therapist or psychiatrist if he is dealing with depression or anxiety. LGB students face higher rates of bullying, putting them at increased risk for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. College students are remarkably resilient, and timely treatment will accelerate their recovery.

Now is the season of celebration. Celebrate the uniqueness of your child. Embrace her growing discovery of who she truly is. Sexual orientation is just one of the many parts of her identity she is trying to explore, understand and accept. With your love and acceptance, she can complete her journey more joyfully and defeat obstacles with greater ease.

©2016 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved

Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

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