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The most wonderful time of the year…or is it?

As the year draws to a close and a new year begins, this season often brings occasions to spend time with our families, including our extended families and larger circle of friends. The holidays can be a great time to reconnect with people we don’t regularly see. While this can bring joy, for many of us it can be a challenging time as well. Particularly for LGBTQ+ youth and their families, not all relatives and extended friends and family members are as loving and supportive as we would like them to be.

Two kinds of parental protection

Often, as parents, we are put in the position of advocating for our children in the settings of larger family gatherings, whether it be raising awareness of a child’s special medical condition, a life circumstance that feels hard right now, or something to be mindful of, such as a food allergy. When it comes to being a parent of an LGBTQ+ youth, parents often go into “protection mode,” which can look different in different families.

Sometimes parents will tell their LGBTQ+ child or teenager to dress differently, not talk about their identity and/or romantic relationships, use a name or pronouns that have been abandoned. In the name of “protecting” our young family member from the hurtful comments and ignorance of extended family members, we are inadvertently giving the message that to be a part of “our” family, you must hide who you are or change something about yourself. This can be harmful to the identity development and self-esteem of youth of all ages.

Sometimes parental protection takes a different form, where we refuse to force our child to be someone other than who they are, so instead we restrict access to family gatherings for our LGBTQ+ young person, declining invitations to large family gatherings or avoiding relationships and communication with extended family members who are not supportive. While this gives youth the message that they don’t need to be anyone different for their family, it also reinforces the message that they are not welcome at family gatherings and/or that because of them and their identity, their family is being excluded from holiday participation.

A few guiding principles

So what’s the “right” answer? As with many things in life, there is no “one size fits all” way to approach gatherings with extended family and friends who are not loving and supportive. There are, however, a few guiding principles to keep in mind.

First, a young LGBTQ+ person should always know that they are loved, and that they are loved unconditionally because of who they are, not despite who they are. If others are unable to accept their relationships and identities, it’s because of the other person’s beliefs, not because of the child themself. Second, as much as possible, it’s ideal to include the young person in conversations about how to handle family gatherings over the holidays, rather than assuming what your young LGBTQ+ family member may want or need.

What else to keep in mind:

  • Rather than skipping holiday gatherings, young people may still want to attend, even if it might be uncomfortable for them. The discomfort may come from their choosing not to share certain details about their lives or identities and/or from showing up as their full selves and dealing with their extended family members’ reactions. Give your child the information and walk through the decision with them. For example, “Grandma may not understand that you are gay and be open to talking about your boyfriend. How would you like to handle it if she asks if you have a girlfriend?” Or “Aunt Kathy may have negative feelings about your new name and pronouns. Would it be more comfortable for you to use your old name and pronouns or to use your new name and pronouns or for our family to pass on the large family gathering this year?”
  • If your child or teenager would feel more comfortable not attending a large family gathering, discuss what alternative celebrations your family might create in place of the previous tradition and discuss how to communicate this with the larger family. Is it more comfortable to find an excuse for missing out this year that is not about the LGBTQ+ child? Would the young person feel more supported if the parents/family made it explicitly known that they will rejoin larger family gatherings once everyone is able to embrace them as their full self?
  • If your child chooses to attend the extended family gathering, review some potential pitfalls and how your child would like to handle them. What should happen if a family member or friend uses the wrong name or pronoun? Do they want their parents to step in? Do they want to handle the situation themselves?
  • Similarly, what kinds of questions or comments might they hear from family members or friends based on what you know about their values and beliefs? Help your child think of/role play responses to potential questions/situations that might arise. Sometimes it’s hard to think of an answer on the spot and it’s always good to come prepared. Again, would the young person like to handle the questions and comments on their own, or should the parent plan to step in on their behalf.
  • Decide on a signal your child can use if they need your support. Something they can say that indicates, “Help me here!” or “Please help me get out of this conversation.”
  • Have an exit plan. Reinforce that your child does not have to tolerate hurtful comments or behavior, even from family members. Sometimes the best laid plans don’t work out. If you think it’s going to be OK, and then it turns out that it is not, it’s OK to change our minds and leave.

Here are some additional resources to learn more about how to support your LGBTQ family member during the holidays and other extended family gatherings:

From my family to yours, wishing you a safe and loving close to 2023 and sending you all love, peace and joy in the New Year.  

Dr. Kade Goepferd, (they/them)
Chief education officer and medical director of the Gender Health program

Dr. Kade Goepferd, (they/them), is the chief education officer, pediatrician and medical director of the Gender Health program at Children’s Minnesota. Dr. Goepferd is an advocate for advancing equitable health care for all children – including trans and gender-diverse youth. They have been named a Top Doctor by both Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine and Minnesota Monthly for the last several years and gave their first TED talk, “The Revolutionary Truth about Kids and Gender Identity” at TEDx Minneapolis in 2020.
Follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Julianna Olsen