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LGBT+ Children: Calmness Is Key - An Ongoing Discussion in Family Law

Helping parents manage difficult situations

It’s essential that children feel the love and support of their parents as they grow up and experience life. This can be difficult for separated parents who might not have the same parenting styles. There also might be a difficult pre-existing background impacting how they communicate. This is something children are often aware of and need protection from.

Whether it’s a first day at school, a school play, parents’ evenings, summer holiday plans or even handovers week-to-week, these situations need to be managed with care, as children should be protected and supported from conflict. However, this can be tough. Parents can often struggle, for various reasons, with preventing a child from being involved in, or aware of parental difficulties.

Parents are always encouraged to act in accordance with a child’s best interests and support the child so they can thrive. Sadly, this can be very difficult when there are complicated background facts. Parents see best interests in different ways, often around binary decisions. The issue of a child’s gender identity and/or sexual orientation is potentially a thorny and difficult matter for separated parents to consider. This doesn’t automatically need to be the case.

Of course, calm parent-led dialogue is key as well as potential wider support and legal advice if there is a material disagreement. Any conflict arising needs to be sensitively handled and managed to contain and seek resolution of disagreement or tensions, if at all possible.

Sometimes, given past parental difficulties, there may already be a child arrangements order in place to regulate child arrangements for some stability and a framework for communication and future planning in general.

That said, even if a court order is in place, it is unlikely to address or plan for the issue of an LGBT+ defining child. That can then make it a difficult issue to manage between parents, but it doesn’t need to be. However, it can quickly become an issue that needs careful attention and consideration. This sometimes puts a strain on parents and how they communicate effectively about arrangements around a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Especially if they hold different views on these matters. There can be a tension that the issue of gender and orientation may be utilised to divide a parent/child relationship or unite it in the converse, subject to the views of a parent. It is important to try to avoid positional points and look at collaboration and effective co-parenting. Of course, each situation turns on its facts.

This article can’t explore every potential scenario, but it can support parents in a broad sense by showing them how to approach these sensitive and difficult situations.

Helping your child navigate an uncertain time 

All children are unique, special and loved, but the concept of a child exploring and understanding their own identity can be quite difficult for parents and this can result in real challenges. It’s important that issues such as a child’s sexual orientation or gender (or exploration of such) is managed without hostility and that parents support and understand their children as much as possible while they’re exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity.

It’s quite right and proper that parents want to (and should) prioritize age-appropriate materials and discussions on such topics with their child to ensure they are supported and safe. That being said, we often find that a child struggles to tell one’s parent about issues relating to their sexual orientation or identity. This is often because they’re worried about the parent finding out and potentially taking a hostile stance. Or, they have a relationship more accustomed to sharing emotional matter with one parent over the other. That is not to say the child favours a parent, but the way they have a relationship with each parent develops as they grow up.

If there is some parental conflict or tension, without some sound advice and support, the issue can become conflated with other matters. For example, if there is parental conflict already, a child confiding that they are exploring their understanding of their gender, does not automatically have anything to do with the parental conflict. The same is true for sexual orientation. To avoid further tension, a strong dose of calm is often the best remedy from the beginning, especially when supporting a child.

That can become very challenging for parents. Especially if it’s within the context of parental disagreement or conflict (ongoing or historic but not forgotten) for a child, as it’s a topic that we see can sometimes invoke partisan views.

Of course, each situation depends on its own specific facts. Tailored legal support and advice is always going to be helpful in these situations. Support from a wider network might also be beneficial, for example, from the child’s school.

The key message is the importance of open-mindedness. Specifically, as a parent is trying as much as they can to understand and support their child during their exploration and understanding of their own identity.

The importance of communication

It’s crucial that children feel comfortable and able to share their views and feelings with both of their parents. Often, in situations where parents have different views on sexual orientation or gender identity, the issues can quickly become very hard to manage and address. Parents can become entrenched or lose sight of reality. The converse may also be true, therefore, each situation needs sensitive handling.

Without a cohesive and functioning dialogue between parents, away from the child, these issues can cause much upset and place the child at the centre of real emotional harm. This can make it difficult for the child, as they’re already struggling and looking to their parents for love and support.

Often, a safe space away from judgement or argument is the very best environment for a child so they can understand themselves and know they’re still loved and cared for equally. Also, parents will want their child to talk to them and feel safe to do so. That’s made much harder if a child is aware that the issue of their sexual orientation or gender identity is resulting in parental tensions.

For example, we sometimes see cases where a parent has concerns about a child exploring their identity, which is supported and encouraged by one parent and opposed by the other. The child is then firmly in the midst of emotional harm. This is a scenario where parents need to support the child and each other to move forward as a separated but emotionally united family for the child.

Of course, each case turns on the facts, so the appropriate advice and support will be tailored and applied specifically to each situation. The issues are often nuanced. That needs proper care and attention. The emphasis should be placed on having a calm, mature, and joined-up discussion, led by parents. This then, minimises the risk of emotional harm that a child could experience.

It’s important to remember that those in the LGBTQ+ community have experienced huge social and political change. Parents are now much better placed for these types of situations and if they’re on the same page and in proper adult dialogue, they can ensure their child feels comfortable and happy. This contrasts with this type of situation becoming an immediate concern and a source of material disagreement and conflict.

Scott Halliday is a Senior Associate at Irwin Mitchell LLP in the Family Law Team.

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