Bianca Bagnarelli

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Dear Therapist,

As a parent, I firmly believe that it is my duty to prepare my kids to be positive, healthy, and productive people both in the world and in personal relationships.

So when my 12-year-old daughter announced that she is gay, my mind started spinning. Don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with her sexual orientation. But I am completely lost when it comes to how to prepare her for future relationships.

We’ve had “the talk” about heterosexual intercourse, so should I have “the talk” about lesbian sex? I’m also unsure how to handle sleepovers. Do I let her girlfriends spend the night when there’s potential for sexual activity?

Please help me with this paradigm shift.

Anonymous
Indianapolis


Dear Anonymous,

First, you’re already on the right track by making healthy relationships a priority for your children. Which is to say, I don’t think you’re as lost as you think you are, and that’s because the best way to prepare your daughter for future relationships, regardless of sexual orientation, is to model the qualities you’d like those relationships to have. If you provide a safe, open dialogue while also setting (and upholding) clear limits that will be renegotiated as she gets older, you’re both going to be able to find your way.

By opening up conversations early and often—as opposed to having “the talk” and being done with it—you’ll communicate to your daughter that you respect her sexuality and the relationships that will go with it, as I gather from your letter you’d like to do. This ongoing dialogue avoids a more shame-based approach (where sex is compartmentalized into a single awkward conversation) and also engenders trust—something you’ll need on both sides as you negotiate boundaries through your daughter’s teen years.

So what will you say? There’s no single “right” way to incorporate our kids’ developing sexual desires into the reality that they’re still young and live in the family household. Every family will have different philosophies and comfort levels around privacy, emotional readiness, and limits. But here’s the point: These should be consistent in a given household, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

What that means in practice is that there’s no double standard, that your rules don’t change simply because your daughter is attracted to girls instead of boys. Think about what you would do if she were heterosexual. Would you talk to her about sex—not just the mechanics, but safety, peer pressure, readiness, respect, and consent? It sounds like you’ve already done at least some of that. If so, you should have the same conversation with her about sex with women. And if you need to educate yourself about lesbian sex, you might reach out to LGBTQ organizations for resources so that the information you give her is as comprehensive as the information you’d offer her about heterosexual sex.

As for sleepovers, think about what your rules would be if she were attracted to boys. Would you allow boys she was romantically interested in to sleep over? Would you let only boys who were clearly longtime platonic pals sleep over? Would you let a boy sleep over if he slept in the living room? Would you allow a co-ed group sleepover? You might consider what kind of permission your daughter needs in order to have guests over. (“Can Jane sleep over this weekend?” is different from “I invited Jane to sleep over this weekend.”) You can run through this same thought process for any of the parameters you’d have regarding your daughter’s sex life in the heterosexual scenario, such as age for sexual activity, degree of activity, and where it’s allowed in the house (if it is).

Over time, these rules will shift, and the conversations the two of you have as you navigate those changes are how the trust between you will grow. For instance, if your rule is that at age 12 she can have platonic sleepovers only, she’ll need to earn your trust that, say, Stella is really “just a friend” and not someone she has a crush on. The same would be true if this were your rule and she liked boys—you’d have to trust that, say, Simon was “just a friend.” Remember that she will continue to have nonromantic friendships with girls her age, and you don’t want to inadvertently get in the way of those friendships.

It’s worth noting, too, that many parents tend to be inconsistent in the messages they send to their kids about sex, such as: Sex is a normal part of being human—but you have to sneak around to do it. Sex should be pleasurable—but you’re relegated to the cramped back seat of a car. Sex in the context of caring about your partner and being intentional about what you both want is healthier—but your only opportunities to have sex are in a closet while drunk at a party. In our family we value honesty—but you have to lie about your sexual activity, even if by omission.

Could these boundaries be more challenging to tease out with same-sex relationships? Maybe. Will your daughter show occasional lapses in judgment or honesty? Possibly. That’s part of being a teenager. These are the years when she’ll learn about accountability and trust—not just with you, but also with her partners.

Fortunately, neither of you has to get this perfect—nobody does. But with clear communication and limits based on what feels appropriate for your family, taking into account your daughter’s age and level of emotional maturity, you won’t feel lost, either.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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