Monday 19 March 2018

Clinical psychologist David Coleman: How can I tell my teenagers that their father is gay?

It is important to talk to the children together. Photo posed
It is important to talk to the children together. Photo posed

Advice from parenting expert and clinical psychologist David Coleman on how to tell children that their dad is gay and on how best to get your two-year-old child to sleep at night.

Q. Many years ago I found out my husband is gay. Obviously this rattled my world, but I told no one and chose to stay with him because our children were small. Now our children are teenagers and I wonder if this is the time to tell them the truth? I am 99pc certain that they have no idea, as we have hidden our issues so well over the years. My husband is in another relationship and things are just too difficult between us now. I worry about local talk and the effect on the children when they hear the truth. I'm afraid it will be a terrible shock to them.

David replies: Whenever your children find out the truth about their dad's sexuality it will be a shock for them, just as it was a shock for you. The fact that the news may be shocking is no reason to delay telling them.

I am inferring, from the way you have described the situation, that another reason you are contemplating telling them now is because you and their dad are considering separating. Certainly, if he is in another relationship, it must be almost impossible to keep up the charade of marriage.

If this is indeed the case, then I think explaining about their dad's sexuality just provides a context to help them understand why the marriage is no longer tenable for you or for their dad.

Hopefully, even though things are difficult between you and their dad, you have enough of a relationship left to be able to talk to the children together. I do think it is important that their dad is centrally involved in explaining things to them. He needs to be fully on board with both the decision to tell them and the manner in which they are told.

Indeed, the need to tell them maybe more acute if he is in a relationship with another man, since it is quite possible that this is already known locally. If so, then it is only a matter of time before your children find out from someone else. It is far better for them to hear this news from both of you.

When you do tell them you may be surprised to learn that they already knew, or were suspicious, that something was up.

They may not have guessed the full details, but, if things are bad between you and your husband they are very likely to be aware. It is hard to live in a house where there is tension or disharmony and not be aware of it.

The real issue about telling them is not the fact of telling them, or the need to tell them, but you and their dad's willingness to be emotionally available afterwards to help them as they begin to process and digest the news.

There is no way to predict how they may take it. Indeed, they may not even be able to take it all on board in one go. You may find that talking to them about their dad's sexuality and the state of your marriage is a process rather than an event.

Yes, shock may be the starting point, but after the shock may come a range of other emotions. They may be upset at the potential for a break up of the family. They may be angry that this is foisted upon them, or that you and their dad carried this "secret" for so long.

They may be anxious about the future and what it may hold, or how their friends, other family, or the wider community may react as the news spreads wider (which it is almost bound to do).

So rather than trying to predict their reaction, just be open to it. Remember also that each of your children may react differently since they will all have their own personalities and separate feelings about the situation.

Try to be warm and understanding, however they may react. Show them that you are willing to listen to them and willing to keep talking and explaining as best you can. As I mentioned, their dad needs to be similarly available to them.

Youngsters, in my experience, are resilient and more open minded than we may give them credit for.

I think that if your children feel like they are being treated as adults, in terms of being entrusted with this information about the family, that they will respect you and their dad more.

No matter how they react, though, they still deserve to know, hard and all as it may be to tell them.

Our two-year-old takes three hours to fall asleep  at night and it is really taking its toll on us

Q. Our little girl is just over two-years-old. Trying to get her to bed at night is really taking its toll on us all, including our 11-month-old. It can take anything up to three hours for her to fall asleep. She gets a couple of stories, we go through what she did during the day, tell her it's bedtime and say goodnight. We stay in the room with her, but she will do anything rather than sleep. She'll walk around the room pulling things out, sing, slap us to get our attention. I'm returning to work soon and dreading dealing with this on top of everything else.

David replies: The first thing that strikes me about your family circumstances is that your daughter may be feeling the squeeze since the baby arrived. She is still very young herself and so may feel like she is competing for your time and attention.

It may be that the night-times are the only times when she feels she gets this undisturbed attention from either of you and so maybe she feels it is in her interests to prolong it as much as possible.

If you think about it from her point of view, it would make perfect sense to take full advantage of having her mother or father present, without interruption or distraction. Maybe this is the only time in the day that her baby sibling is not there and not drawing your attention.

Naturally, because she is only two, it will be hard for her to explain what is going on emotionally. She is unlikely to be able to verbally articulate her wants and needs.

As an aside, I can imagine that when you return to work the time available for both of your children will be further limited and so you may even see an escalation in the night-time behaviours.

You may need to begin dealing with her bedtime issues by, during the daytime, acknowledging the impact of having a sibling and how that has changed they dynamic of her family.

She needs to know that you can understand that she may be missing you or her dad and that it is busier and more distracting with two children to love and care for.

The key to achieving this is to use empathy statements. So you might say things like "it has been really busy and distracting since your sister arrived". Or, "it is hard to share me and your dad with your little sister".

With this kind of groundwork as a base, you can then deal with the actual bedtime.

Keep to your bedtime routine, as described, including plenty of winding down time from about 6.30pm or 7.00pm. Restrict any screentime in the hour before bed, and ensure that the evenings are as interactive with you as possible.

Try to have the bedtime routine focused on her. So that might mean that one parent settles her, while the other settles her sister. Remember that she is only two and so a routine that "babies" her, involving lots of cuddling, soothing and physical closeness may be most effective.

Your goal is not to get her to sleep, but rather to reinforce her to stay in bed, since sleep will come to her if she is lying down and ready for it. Your presence seems like it will be the most powerful reinforcement for her.

So, when it comes to the bedtime bit itself, you can still offer to be with her while she falls asleep. But, do gently and firmly set the rules in place, which are that you will stay with her as long as she stays, quietly, in bed.

If she tries to climb out of bed, or is too loud, then just carry her back to bed and offer her another go to stay in bed, while you stay with her. Keep the lights off and distractions to a minimum.

She needs to learn that the best way to have you close by and all to herself is to be quiet and calm in her bed. Keep your own interaction with her to a minimum. If she talks to you then just gently remind her that this is sleeping time.

I think if she realises that you are definitely going to stay with her, and that this consistently happens over time for her, that she will be able to let herself go off to sleep much more quickly.

There will be plenty of time in the future to then wean her off your presence altogether.

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