Denial Prolonged: A Stumbling Block to Parents’ Healing and Growth
A Means of Coping
Hearing the painful news that your son or daughter is embracing an LGBTQ+ identity can cause any Christian parent to feel profound pain and heartache. I often sit with mothers and fathers who share stories filled with complex relational challenges and heartbreaking circumstances. I have also watched parents resort to all kinds of measures to manage their emotions and pain—from seeking some sense of control by lecturing their children and by turning to sources of comfort to self-medicate or simply trying to distract themselves from thinking deeply about their child altogether. These behaviors are commonly referred to as coping mechanisms. Conscious or unconscious, coping mechanisms are developed to manage painful and uncomfortable emotion. They help us survive traumatic events, endure stressful circumstances, and find some sense of comfort or assurance that everything is okay. I would like to take a closer look at the very common, but often subtle, coping mechanism of denial.
Surprisingly, denial can be healthy in the middle of a surprising or traumatic event, as denial allows you to be removed enough from an overwhelming emotion so that you can function until you have time to process the situation. Take the mom in this story, for example: A middle school teacher checks her email on a lunch break and discovers that her 17-year-old daughter is taking hormone therapy through the family insurance plan. Because the mom can’t afford to allow the weight of this discovery to completely undo her in that moment, she temporarily removes herself from her emotions before getting back to her classroom, knowing she just has to finish her day and make it to the car before breaking down in tears. Or consider parents who are completely taken off guard by their son disclosing to them that he identifies as gay. Rather than exploding from shock and devastation, they exercise self-control and compose themselves when hearing their child’s news, responding in words of love and care, despite how significant of a blow they had just received. In these ways, denial can certainly aid in the moment when the need to control difficult emotions is critical. It can also give a parent time to process his or her child’s issues at a pace that the parent can manage.
Even though denial can play a healthy role in parents’ emotional process, it often lingers much longer than is helpful. Although initial denial alleviates negative feelings and reactions, prolonged denial is detrimental, only making matters worse over time. Consider a few ways hurting parents may persist in denial as a means of coping with their situation:
- Not believing their son or daughter is telling the truth about his or her perceived sexual or gender identity. It can be tempting to minimize what your child feels about herself, perhaps chalking it up to confusion or just going through a phase. Certainly this could be a possibility for some kids, but if your child is truly embracing an LGBTQ+ identity and you continue to dismiss it, then this will only lead you to hurt your child and damage your relationship with them.
- Pretending that their child’s sexuality or gender identity is their own issue to manage and doesn’t really affect the parents. Denial can give a false sense of resolve by reasoning that your child’s issues affect him or her alone and therefore you needn’t be directly involved or impacted. This is commonly the case for fathers who feel that there is no sense talking anymore about the issue if they can’t fix it. This reasoning minimizes the grief your child has caused and keeps you from sharing the painful burden you are carrying, besides keeping your child at a distance.
- Pretending that your child’s sexual or gender identity will resolve itself and will go away in time. Because denial shields you from uncomfortable realities, it also prevents you from engaging in what is really going on in the life of your child: his story, his relationships, his day-to day-reality. If your child lives outside the home or you have a cordial relationship as long as this issue is not brought up or acknowledged, you may be tempted to resist God calling you to engage in loving your child by bringing up her sexual identity; this gives you a false reassurance that things will work out without your direct involvement. This kind of denial hinders a parent from loving his child in a personal and relevant way.
Remaining in denial can feel safe and comforting, but, in the long run, denial will only hinder you from participating in the work that God desires to do in and through you from these hard circumstances.
Embracing Growth and Change
When seeking to cope with uncomfortable and painful circumstances, we must consider how Scripture offers guidance to us in our heartache. Romans 5:2–5 says,
“Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
This passage invites us to embrace hardship and suffering because of all that God wants to produce through it: endurance, character, and hope, grounded in the love of God! This is certainly not a common go-to coping mechanism, yet walking through suffering in faith is the only coping strategy that is firmly grounded in the love of God and hope of his redeeming purposes.
Prolonged denial is focused on temporal relief and avoiding the responsibility of confronting your unpleasant reality. Although this can alleviate the anxiety and pain in the moment, if prolonged, it results in cutting off access to the means of healing and growth that God is willing and ready to provide.
If you are a Christian parent of a child who embraces an LGBTQ+ identity, take a moment to examine yourself. Where are the places of denial that God may want to address in your heart? Perhaps you need to finally acknowledge your child’s same-sex partner, ask more details about your child’s experiences as he wrestled with his gender identity, or simply talk to a friend or spouse about how you are really feeling this week concerning your child.
If you know a parent who may be in stuck in a place of denial, consider pursuing them out of love. Ask them to talk to you more about how they are feeling. Consider how you can discover what God may desire to do in his or her life from this difficult trial.
May you be comforted with the knowledge that God not only desires to alleviate the burden of your pain and discomfort, but he also wants to use these circumstances to demonstrate his providential care and strength through your life.