How 2 words changed a mother’s approach to the dreaded sex talk

Sara MacKay had a moment of panic the day her 12-year-old daughter asked about a sleepover with another little girl. 

MacKay remembered the rules around having friends over from when she was growing up, but this was new territory. About a year previously her daughter had left her a note: “Im Bisexual.”

“I felt kind of lost really. I didn’t want to inhibit my child from having innocent sleepovers with her girlfriends,” MacKay said from her Pictou County, N.S., home.

“It’s a different thought process you have to go through and I had very little information to work with in terms of how to have conversations around boundaries.”

MacKay is a full-time student at St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, N.S., and through a psychology course she found a study that resonated. It described how parents of LGBTQ-identifying kids had anxieties about giving their children accurate information and about monitoring their relationships.

It all sounded familiar.

“I totally embrace who my daughter is and what her identity is, and so I was worried actually that if I made any decisions without thinking about it I’d be creating a feeling of shame in her as if she has something to hide or feel bad about. And it’s not that at all, it’s totally my lack of knowledge and understanding.” 

Sara MacKay says she was honoured to receive this note from her daughter. (Submitted by Sara MacKay)

MacKay wrote a paper on the topic that, through the help of her professor Karen Blair, was published on Psychology Today’s blog

Realizing that other parents with LGBTQ children have similar concerns about accessing information motivated MacKay to propose hosting a drop-in group at her home starting in January.

Parents need a space to get uncomfortable and ask questions for the sake of their kids, she said. The prospect of pregnancy, an old standby fear tactic to discourage sex, might not apply, either. 

“It’s awkward for any parent to talk to their kid about sex, but when you don’t have the experience that your child will likely have it becomes a combination of awkward and almost fear-based because you don’t want to give them inaccurate information,” she said. 

“I don’t want to limit her at all in her understanding of what’s healthy and what’s safe and what’s pleasurable, heaven forbid.”

Questions from parents about supporting their children’s sexuality and identity are frequent at the Pictou County Sexual Health Centre, according to executive director Vania MacMillan.

“They’re concerned they can’t protect their children when they’re not around, when they’re at school or even walking down the street,” she said. 

Vania MacMillan is the executive direction of the Pictou County Sexual Health Centre. (Submitted by Vania MacMillan)

Parents also want to know how to talk to their kids but are worried about saying the wrong thing or offending them. Some have questions about sexuality and gender. Others worry about what their friends and coworkers might think.

Kids reach out, too, often to express how their parents seem embarrassed or don’t feel comfortable enough to talk to them about sexuality-related issues. 

“One of the most common phrases is, ‘I don’t get.’ Or, ‘I don’t understand it.’ We can all empathize to a certain degree, but it’s difficult to relate to or understand something that you’ve never experienced. But you don’t have to relate or understand or know everything to be able to support someone,” she said. “It’s about the child … their sexuality, their gender, their happiness and their life.”

This winter the centre is holding a program called the PhotoVoice project for 10 parents and youth. MacMillan said while the focus is on photography, it’s also a way for people to learn about self-expression. Sessions may include guest speakers — on everything from hormonal therapy to anti-bullying.

‘Be prepared to help them survive’

MacMillan said living in rural areas can pose particular challenges for families because there are fewer resources, a less visible community and more stigma about LGBTQ issues. 

But she said it’s crucial for parents to take steps to ensure they can support their kids — given they’re statistically more likely to experience bullying, mental-health issues and challenges at school. 

“We’re not just talking about loving them or saying it’s OK to be gay. It’s beyond that. Your LGBTQ child is going to face a lot more challenges than a hetero, cis-gendered child would. And parents need to be prepared to help them survive. It seems like a strong word but it’s real.”

The United Way in Pictou is funding a project where people can learn to express themselves through photography. (Submitted by Vania MacMillan)

She advised parents to look for resources online and start conversations at a young age to open discussions about gender and sexualty long before they’re contemplating sexual activity. 

“Be there and let them know they’ll always have a safe place to turn,” MacMillan said, who added her organization is “very proud” of MacKay’s efforts to share information with parents. 

“She’s willing to open up herself and her home for people who need support and we encourage her … Hopefully we can work together to get some things done in the community.” 

The support group hasn’t started yet, but MacKay said she’s been overwhelmed with the responses from friends, neighbours and people who live in the area.

MacKay said when it came to the sleepover, she allowed her daughter to go after they talked about what they were both comfortable with. Confronting her own biases and expanding her understanding of sexual identity has changed the way she parents, she said. 

“It’s actually teaching me about my own understanding about navigating sex and giving me a new perspective on healthy, enjoyable sex.” 

As for advice, MacKay said one of the most moving pieces she received was from a LGTBQ friend who came out when he was older. He said parents should tell their children who come out that they love them — without the caveat of “no matter what.”

“Saying no matter what makes it sound like what your child is something that needs to be forgiven. But it’s not in my opinion, it’s just who my child is … I just say ‘I love you,'” said MacKay.

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