“My middle school son is Latino, adopted, and identifies as gay. He is already being bullied at school for being different (we live in a primarily white community) and as a straight, white dad I am not in a position to understand what he is going through. What should I do to help my son get through this?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Laurin Mayeno
Thanks for taking the important step of reaching out for support. My son is also gay and was bullied in middle school. I wanted to understand what your family might be going through, so I reached out to a friend. “AQ”, who wants to remain anonymous, has generously shared his thoughts and experiences.
In middle school, “fitting in” often means hiding things that make you unique, which can be hard for any student. AQ thinks it is especially hard for LGBTQ transracial adoptees, saying, “For us, the search for self started long before middle school. It started when we first knew we were different. We are driven by a deep fear of rejection and abandonment that can be difficult for a non-adopted person to understand.”
The tips below are based largely on AQ’s advice. I added my thoughts as a mom, and as someone who grew up in a mixed-race family. Every situation is different, but I hope this can give you some insight and support.
1) Understand that difference makes a difference. It’s great that you’re open about the differences between you and your son. Being aware about your own experience with difference may make it easier for him to be open with you. I grew up in a mixed-race household where race wasn’t discussed. It was hard for me to talk about my own identity struggles with my parents. I was afraid that talking about race and racism would be hurtful to my white mom.
For an adoptee, sharing difficult feelings with parents can be particularly hard. Adoptees often learn from a very young age that they are “special” and that everyone has worked hard to give them the life they have. This can create a huge sense of guilt. AQ said, “A child who is struggling may feel that they are being ungrateful to their parents. Queer transracial adoptees may feel pressure to be the ‘perfect’ child. As a result, it may be harder to share their deeper, more painful feelings with a parent.” Give your son the space to talk about what he’s going through without pressuring him.
2) Know and care for yourself. Parents have feelings too, and I imagine this isn’t easy for you. You may have fears and insecurities as an adoptive parent whose experience is different than your child’s. Know that you’re a very important person in your son’s life, while also knowing that you can’t be everything to him. Recognize that you aren’t immune to racism and homophobia. In spite of your best intentions, you may say and do things that are hurtful to your child. Forgive yourself. Explore your own feelings and beliefs about sexual orientation, race, and culture. The more comfortable you are with yourself, the more you can be there for your son without your own biases or fears getting in the way.
3) Help him make sense of his experience. One tragic result of bullying is that children end up believing the nasty things people say about them. Help your son understand that nothing is wrong with him. He is being picked on because our society teaches us that difference is to be feared. Bullying is a way to feel powerful, by excluding others and picking on those who are different. If you can help him see why people act the way they do, he will be less likely to internalize the negative messages. You can also help your son develop a more empowering way to think about difference. For example, by being himself, he is making it easier for others to be themselves, too.
4) Be his biggest fan. Says AQ: “My school days were tormenting, but after school on the softball field, I came to life. There, I could be my authentic self AND be celebrated by my parents and family.” Let your child know that you’re there cheering him on, and that you are proud of him. Cheer him on for having the courage to be himself, for standing up to a bully, or for anything he does that you appreciate. All children, particularly adopted children, need to know that you won’t reject them if they aren’t perfect or if they tell you things that may be hard to hear. Let your child know, with actions and words, that you will love him no matter what.
5) Help him find peers who accept him. When children find a sense of belonging among peers, it makes their lives much more bearable. It might be others who share similar interests, like sports or the arts. My son Danny found belonging at his middle school’s Gay Straight Alliance.
6) Let him be your teacher. AQ, who has worked with LGBTQ youth, says, “I saw young people shine when they taught others about something they cared about. One of my fondest memories of my mother was when she asked me to teach her about my music. She lay down on my bed with me and I played her my favorite tracks. She listened intently and asked lots of questions.” What can your son teach you that can let him shine and give you a window into his world?
7) Support him in building relationships with adult role models. Your son may need relationships with adults he trusts, and you may not be the one he can confide in right now. AQ says, “My 6th grade church group leader was the first adult I ever told about how unhappy I was and how much I wanted to die. We talked a lot about suicide, God, and music. Her support was very important to me. It made me happy when my parents took interest in her and let me hang out with her alone even though she was 10 years older than me.”
8) Don’t push your agenda. Some eager parents want their adopted (or LGBTQ) kids to learn about their cultures, be around their people, and to meet other adoptees “like them.” This may or may not be helpful for your child, depending on what’s important to him. AQ says, “It can be hard to find acceptance in the Latino community when you are socialized by a white family. I live in a predominantly Latino neighborhood and still fear that my neighbors will think I am not a ‘real’ Latino. It’s complicated and it’s a life-long search.” Let your son know you would be happy to learn with him and help him find connections, if and when he is interested.
9) Offer to help with coping strategies. Let your son know that you are there to help him figure out ways to make his life better. Think about strategies that have helped you get through stressful situations. Share your own experiences, help your son tap into his own strengths, and help him find resources and support systems.
A final thought from AQ: “In the end, this experience your son is having will help him develop wisdom, interests, and capabilities. The key is to continue what you are doing— reaching out, asking questions, finding resources, and loving him no matter what.”
Here are a few links that may also be helpful to you and your son:
Articles and Resources for Adopted Teens and Parents
On Bullying: How can I help?
Proud Mom, Part 3 – Middle and High School
Thanks to my son Danny Moreno for giving feedback on this piece!
Laurin Mayeno is a mixed race Asian/Jewish/Anglo woman and mother of a multiracial gay son. She founded Mayeno Consulting 18 years ago to create inclusive, equitable, diverse spaces where everyone is valued and supported. Her son, who loved dressing up as a princess, inspired her current focus on building support for gender diverse and LGBTQ young people and families in schools, preschools, and other organizations that serve children and families. Her bilingual children’s picture book, One of a Kind Like Me/Único como yo, and Proud Mom video series raise awareness and spark dialogue about gender diversity.
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