Conservative Parents and Gay Children: 3 Ways to Survive the Holidays

12/17/2015 12:04 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2016

I was a 26-year-old seminary student in the midst of coming out. Depression had arrested my personality and I was furious at God. I was drowning in waters of anxiety and worry. Seeing myself toil over my sexuality, my mother responded to my angst. Without my knowing, she invited my boyfriend and his parents over for the holidays.

My mother greeted them in one of those moments that felt like a hundred years. She was hugging his mother. I was elated to be her son, yet simultaneously terrified that I was too needy. I worried that I was wasting credit with her. It was as if I was spending my last $20 on the old carnival game, whack-a-mole.

Yet there my mother stood in solidarity. She was going to be my pillar of security.

I have to say that she was not steadfast because she approved of my gay relationship. She's a conservative Christian pastor and my sexual orientation leaves her a bit uncomfortable. Her gesture wasn't a statement of acceptance for my choice to date men. Her role as my mother came first. She was my mom no matter what reality was created by my development. She was accepting the role of love and not that of fear.

Sadly, many parents don't respond to their LGBTQ children's needs like my mother had done with me. Some parents blast their children with passive-aggressive questions that deny appropriate boundaries. Others remain silent on issues that plague the family while everyone hides behind smiles of politeness.

For these people, the holidays are more representative of being tolerated than being loved. And yet, most of us approach the holidays in anticipation of belonging and being loved.

Here are three tips to reconnecting during the holidays:

1. Mothers and fathers should love their children, not their sexuality.

Children will always crave the approval of their parents -- not as a gay sons or daughters, but as children who are wholeheartedly welcomed no matter what choices they make. This type of unconditional acceptance is a fundamental aspect of attachment psychology that extends from crying for a bottle at two in the morning all the way into adult decisions. Gay children, like straight children, crave to know that they are not disposable based on the decisions they make.

2. Parents should take time to understand their child's world, not how he or she appears on paper.

Bonding between parent and child occurs by interactions that promote a sense of being known. This holiday season I hope parents connect by getting to know their children's fears, hopes, joys and passions -- not by judging which gender the child will kiss when the clock strikes midnight on New Years. Get to know your child and their world beyond their sexual orientation.

3. LGBTQ children should internalize love that's right in front of them.

Throughout my years as a therapist -- working with straight conservative parents and LGBTQ children -- I have realized that children become so hurt and protective that they are unable to accept love when parents offer it. These children consider that poignant question, "Why now?" They either respond with ambivalence or behaviors that deny any sort of relational repair. They have become so used to rejection that they are no longer willing to shoulder the vulnerability of acceptance.

As a bisexual child of two conservative parents, I have had to deconstruct my walls of ambivalence, too. Sometimes the love that my parents shared didn't look like the version I created in my head, but it was still love. Other times their love was more profound than anything I could have imagined. Experiencing that surprisingly rich love was hard to tolerate because I had to internalize a deeper understanding of value that shifted my self-understanding. Great love brought great fear, or at least it did when I was used to rejection.

Parents, this holiday season practice being that pillar of security all throughout the child's lifespan of development, not just the comfortable stages. And may we, as children, trust love and its message as truth, about our value and our parents' willingness to be connected.

We will all make relational mistakes. But on the foundations of a religious holiday, maybe it's time for a little grace. In this light, let us connect this year not as LGBTQ children and religious parents, but as family.