Children, parents, siblings, extended family and friends can be affected by the male partner coming out as gay and the changes this can mean. When women learn their partner is sexually attracted to other men, often their first question is about how and when to tell their children. Children’s needs should be at the heart of the family and it’s important for both parents to support them through this time.
Helping the children transition …
Ideally your children will continue to have a good ongoing relationship with their father because emotionally he will always be important to them. Children form their own identity in reference to their parents, so be mindful that describing their father’s sexuality or behaviour in negative or shameful terms can make your children feel negative or ashamed about themselves.
As you know, children do best when they have parents who love them unconditionally and who treat each other with respect. Pressuring children to take sides against one parent or another can cause them pain, confusion and emotional harm.
When to tell your children may depend on what noticeable changes are occurring in the family. If you and your partner are arguing a lot, or separating, your children will need an explanation, or they may blame themselves for the marital problems and worry about possible reasons and outcomes. If you and your partner have decided to remain together it may not be necessary to talk to them until they’re older. It is also recommended that your children hear about changes in the family from you instead of overhearing an adult conversation or being told by a school friend.
It may be that the children already know. In our experience children have sometimes intercepted text messages, seen Dad’s gay porn on the home computer or in a hiding place, overheard adult conversations or even been with dad when he’s met a new partner. There are some occasions when children have decided to keep a secret to protect their mother or to protect the family.
Some thoughts about talking with the children…
If you’ve decided to tell the children, telling them as soon as possible will help ensure that the parent-child trust is not broken.
If you are thinking of not telling your children, it’s important to consider the long-term effects of keeping secrets in the family. However, some parents choose to delay discussing their father’s sexuality so the children have some time to mature a little more and understand different forms of sexuality. Some parents deliberately increase messages of diversity during this time, eg. mentioning that there are lots of different types of families and that gay people are just like everyone else.
Tell them in a loving, supportive manner, ideally with both parents present. Most serious family issues are discussed with both parents, it is respectful of your roles as co-parents and provides a stable, unified environment for the children. If you anticipate this may be difficult for you – prepare first, phone the Women Partners service for support and practice some ideas or speak with a counsellor.
If the conversation is difficult for you – don’t be afraid to be honest with them about your emotions, but if you’re very upset, try to filter the intensity of your feelings.
Work at maintaining good communication with your children so that they feel able to speak to you at any time when they have questions or concerns.
Encourage your children to continue to think of their father as the same person who has always loved and cared for them.
Younger children often take information like this in their stride, particularly if they feel supported and are reassured about what changes to the family may mean to them. Many younger children will ‘grow into’ a mature understanding of the situation over time.
Teenagers can experience difficulty with this information at first – sometimes because they are discovering and coming to terms with their own sexuality. Discomfort can stem from seeing parents as sexual beings. Social stereotypes about gay people, and peers’ negative reactions, can also be confusing or distressing. Teenage boys sometimes find it especially difficult as some worry they are more likely to be gay because their father is. It’s important to reassure them that they are no more likely to be gay than any of their friends.
Let your children know that bi/homosexuality is a normal sexual variation, not a ‘sickness’ or ‘perversion’ (which is something they may hear from other people). Many families find it helpful to have someone supportive, in addition to their parents, with whom they can talk openly and discuss these issues. This person could be a counsellor or responsible family friend or relative. Alternatively they can call the Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800 (24 hours).
Children may need plenty of time to come to terms with their father’s lifestyle. Children will benefit from being allowed to do this at their pace, not according to anyone else’s timetable. Parents should agree on appropriate limits of exposure for children, particularly in regard to the gay parent introducing a new partner.
Relationships Australia has excellent booklets about divorce and talking to children. You can find them under ‘Publications’ at relationships.org.au.