School Issues and Bullying: How LGBT Parents Can Support Children

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“The good news is that, while we might have little control over what happens at school, we do have the ability to do a great deal — both emotionally and practically — to support our children as the children of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender parents . . . Parent involvement, on every level, is a key factor in the overall success your child will have in school.”
—Ruti Kadish, Ph.D., Human Rights Campaign 

School Days
Parents know that when children begin school, a lot changes, including how children see themselves as part of the bigger world. Preschoolers often think that all families are like theirs. When they start school, they’re frequently surprised to find out that not everyone was adopted, or not everyone lives with their grandparents, or not everyone has two moms or two dads. And they might begin to be more cautious when talking about their parents and their family.

One adult talks about drawing a picture of his two-mom family in kindergarten. The teacher asked who the second woman in the picture was. “I told her Donna. I thought every family had a Donna.” But later, when he realized that not everyone had a “Donna,” he was more hesitant to talk about his family.

In early elementary school, if children in LGBT-headed families hear negative or hurtful comments about their parents, their concern is usually focused on not wanting to hear mean things said about their family. As they grow and become more aware of sexuality, they may begin to fear being rejected by their peers, or being harassed about their own sexuality.

Connecting with Similar Families
Many children and youth in LGBT-headed families say they feel a bit lonely because they often don’t know anyone else at school with LGBT parents. One youth said it, “made a real difference to know how many gay families there are out there,” when he connected with others online. Young adults who didn’t know someone else with an LGBT parent said they wished they had. They thought it would have been a lot easier in school if they didn’t feel so alone. Researchers agree: Studies show that it’s beneficial when children know they are not alone and they have opportunities to share with other kids who have LGBT parents.

Amanda, a youth who attended Family Week, a week-long event where LGBT-parented families come together, said, “It's really nice to be able to go up to someone and say, 'So, moms or dads?'” (Amanda has moms). And Jesse (dads) said, "When I was in elementary school, I used to get bullied a ton, so being able to come here is a breath of fresh air."

The advice from many experienced LGBT parents is to get connected to a larger community of LGBT-headed families. They say it’s important for their children to see other families like theirs, especially as they get older. LGBT foster and adoptive parents often have networks that overlap, some as part of the adoption and foster care community and some as part of the LGBT community. There’s a lot of common ground. And other parents often have helpful tips about dealing with bullying and teasing.

Bullying and Cyberbullying
Teasing, harassment, and bullying can make it hard to concentrate in class, can get in the way of making friends, and can take the fun out of being at school.

For most children and youth in LGBT-headed households, having an LGBT-identified parent is not troubling. It’s only an issue when someone else makes it that way. “Because it’s an issue for other people it becomes an issue for me.” One 16-year-old says, “The hardest thing is knowing that people can be mean . . . People don’t even seem to try to understand.”

In focus groups where children and youth were asked about what it was like to be part of an LGBT-headed family, 71.4% of the children and youth said that they were “teased and made fun of at school” (research by AdoptUSKids and National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections).

Bullying can also take place online. Cyberbullying means using the Internet, cell phones, and/or social media to harass, tease, or hurt another person. The impact of cyberbullying is multiplied: it’s easy for someone to spread hurtful comments and pictures quickly and widely. And unlike “traditional” bullying, cyberbullying can happen at any time of day and in any location. This can create anxiety that never goes away for children and youth who are bullied, because even when they’re not online, they might worry about what’s being posted without their knowledge.

A mother in a two-mom family asked for
advice on the KidSafe blog from Colage, the
website for people with LGBT parents
(http://kidsafe.tumblr.com/). As she
prepared her four-year-old daughter to go
to school, she wanted to know what had
helped other young people. She received
the following response:

“My best advice to you would be to
continue to be honest and open with your
daughter. Honest communication is what
helped me to understand many large,
complicated topics, both as a child, and
now as a young adult. 

When I was six years old and my mother
came out, she told me that, for really
stupid reasons, some people don’t like
lesbians, just like some people don’t like
people who don’t look like them or think
like them. That helped me prepare for
situations that arose down the line. But at
the same time, she didn’t make a big deal
of it (for example, no sit down “serious
talk”), which in turn, made it so I didn’t
think of it as a huge deal. When situations
of discrimination arose, my moms talked
to me about them, which helped me sort
through the feelings associated with such
situations.” 

What You Can Do as a Parent
As with all bullying, experts advise parents to encourage children to let you know immediately when bullying occurs.

You can look for signs that a child is being bullied. Loss of interest or fear of going to school, a change in school behavior such as skipping classes or grades that suddenly drop, withdrawing from friends and family, or showing stress while using the computer are all clues that something is not quite right and a signal to parents that it’s time to open a conversation.

What should your response be if a child comes home from school and tells you about teasing or harassing remarks? The resource What Do You Say to “That’s So Gay” suggests to parents and teachers, “Don’t excuse those remarks. Saying ‘Josh doesn’t really know what it means,’ or ‘Sarah was only joking,’ excuses hurtful behavior.” You can help when teasing or bullying occurs by working out strategies in advance.

First and foremost, physical safety is important. If a child feels physically threatened, sometimes the best strategy is to just walk away.

Another strategy is to work together as a family to come up with a standard response that can be used in many situations. If a child hears slurs, jokes, or disrespectful language about people who are LGBT, a good response might be, “Name-calling is not allowed in my family.”

Children and youth say that a common question they get is, “What’s it like to have two moms (or two dads)?” A response that works for some youth is, “I can’t answer that question because I don’t have any experience with a mom and a dad.” Children and youth who have a parent who identifies as transgender often get the hardest questions. Many youth have expressed that, the more they were educated about what their parent’s gender identity meant to them, the easier it was to answer questions.

After you have the words to use, the third strategy is to practice. Saying the words out loud in the supportive environment of your home is obviously not the same as facing a bully, but it does prepare a child to have the words ready. Keep the responses short, respectful, and affirming. Consider role playing where the child plays “the bully,” repeating the hurtful comments heard at school, and you give a response. Then trade places, so you are playing the bully. Children might surprise you with some insightful responses!

Talk about how to tell an adult if they’re bullied or cyberbullied. Consider teaching a child to copy and paste online conversations and encourage them to share those with you if they ever feel threatened or harassed. For more strategies to help with bullying, see the Coalition’s tip sheet for youth “Cyberbullying, Social Networking, and You” and the Coalition’s tip sheet, “Bullying Hurts Everyone.”

All Children Should Feel Safe
School should be a safe place for children and youth, but we know that bullying makes some children feel unsafe at school. Bullying also occurs online through social media. Children who grow up in an LGBT-headed family may be bullied at school and online in ways that other children are not. As a parent in an LGBT-headed household, you can give a child strategies to respond to bullying so that they can go to school and go online and feel safe.


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Copyright © 2017 Coalition for Children | Youth | Families, formerly Adoption Resources of WI