Advice for addressing sexuality with an 11 year old

Dear Sharon,

My son is 11, and we think he is gay. That may sound crazy, but we are pretty certain. I don’t think he knows yet, or if he does, he hasn’t said anything. Should we? How would you advise us to proceed?

Dear Parents,

I am glad to hear that you are thinking about your son and the issues that are important to him.

The ages at which children consider different aspects of sexuality vary a great deal. Many 11 year olds are not interested in or ready to explore the topic even on a superficial level; others are beginning to sort things through or are encouraged to do so in a variety of ways by peers.

I think it is best for parents to think about what would be helpful for their particular child. If you think that your child is beginning to examine identity questions through his own thought processes, through exposure at school or from peers, then it is important for him to set up time and space in which to share his thoughts with you. This usually involves perseverance, patience and a sincere lack of urgency on a parent’s part whenever possible.

If parents want to talk about sexuality with their 11 year olds, but the children are not aware of or considering the subject, then I suggest that the parents wait and focus on the topics currently on the young person’s mind. Eleven year olds are usually juggling concerns about friends, sorting through short- and long-term goals and interests, and dealing with the invariable insecurities that surface in pre-adolescence. Parental support and perspective about these issues can make a big difference during these formative years.

If these parent-child discussions go well, then they will establish a sound framework for future communication about sexuality and other questions.

The more casual the parental tone and atmosphere during “heart-to-heart” conversations, the more likely it will be that the pre-teens will feel less “under surveillance” and more able to talk through their thoughts and ideas. Letting the pre-teen do most of the talking and providing opportunities for him to ask questions — rather than to primarily hear adult “speeches” — can help the conversation go well.

In this column I have repeatedly emphasized that, ideally, parents should find ways to spend relaxed, fun time with their child. I can’t reinforce that idea enough as pre-teens and teens begin to sort through complicated issues such as intimacy. Such discussions ultimately go better if communication takes place in the broader context of a relaxed and loving home environment.