Academic journal article Family Relations

Parental Reactions to Their Child's Disclosure of a Gay/lesbian Identity

Academic journal article Family Relations

Parental Reactions to Their Child's Disclosure of a Gay/lesbian Identity

Article excerpt

Parental Reactions to Their Child's Disclosure of a Gay/Lesbian Identity*

Ritch C. Savin-Williams** and Eric M. Dube

Popular culture writers have proposed a developmental sequence of stages that parents face upon first learning of their child's homosexuality. Empirical investigations of these purported "mourning and loss" stages are few and generally cast doubt on the inevitability and normative sequencing of parental reactions. We present this empirical evidence, suggest a research agenda, and discuss the implications of the research findings for mental health caregivers and practitioners.

Key Words: adolescence, homosexuality, parent-child relationships, parent development.

Personal narratives, popular advice-giving tracts, and "self- help" books composed by and for parents often present the act of disclosure by youths of their gay/lesbian identity as necessarily creating a crisis within the family. This literature promotes the view that as a result of this disclosure, irrevocable damage is done to the child-parent relationship. MacDonald (1983) noted that healthy family relationships under such circumstances are "uncommon" and that trauma must necessarily beset families with a sexual-minority youth. When youths disclose their sexual orientation a type of parent "coming-out" process is initiated "whereby parents are given the opportunity to restructure expectations and goals for the future life course of their children" (Boxer, Cook, & Herdt, 1991, p. 86; see also Coleman & Remafedi, 1989). Once confronted with the reality of their child's sexual orientation, parents have been described by mental health professionals as reacting with symptoms of grief and mourning, progressing through a series of stages similar to those described by Kubler-Ross (1969) after the shock of discovering one's own impending death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although this view is a very popular conceptualization of parental reactions, used by parent support groups to help parents understand their feelings, little empirical research has been conducted that directly bears on these mourning stages.

In previous publications, developmental issues confronting sexual-minority youths in terms of deciding whether, when, how, and why to disclose to parents (Savin-Williams, in press a; Savin-Williams & Diamond, in press) and the parent-youth relationship (Savin-Williams, in press b) are reviewed. In this article the focus is redirected from youths and placed onto parents. First, attention is given to the purported developmental stages that characterize parental reactions to the disclosure news. Second, empirical research that addresses these stages is then reviewed. We conclude with a discussion on future research needs regarding the youth-parent relationship, both before and after disclosure, and implications for those who care for the mental health of heterosexual parents with gay children.1

A Developmental Model of Parental Reactions

Although parents often react in a less than ideal fashion after learning of their child's same-sex attractions, limited research indicates that most eventually arrive at tolerance or acceptance of their son's or daughter's sexual orientation. This process is not an easy one and a period of uncertainty, disruption, and, in more tempestuous cases, chaos is often created within the family. Various writers have proposed paradigms by which parents evolve through a series of stages from initial shock to eventual acceptance of their child; many of these share considerable overlap in structure and content (Anderson, 1987; Bernstein, 1990; Borhek, 1993; Bozett & Sussman, 1989; Brown, 1988; DeVine, 1984; Martin, 1982; Myers, 1982; Pearlman, 1992; Robinson, Walters, & Steen, 1989; Strommen, 1989; Tremble, Schneider, & Appathurai, 1989; Wirth, 1978). These proposed models follow the delineation of stages originally proposed by Kubler-Ross (1969) that characterize individuals facing imminent death. …

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