Expert Advice

My 15yo has just told me she's gay - how do I handle this? And other parenting questions answered

Auckland teenager Sarah Martin offers insights into how teens think to help parents understand their own teenager better.

Sarah Martin is an 18-year-old school prefect from Auckland who believes parenting experts don't always get it right with their advice on raising teenagers.

"I often find my mum reading things but I never feel like the truth and best advice is always captured," she says. "Where is the perspective of the teenager?"

While she's not discounting the experts, she believes parents would benefit more from really listening to what their teenager has to say.

Generally speaking, teens do accept boundaries and rules, Sarah says. Teens care what their parents think and want to be trusted to make good decisions.

"But listening is a big thing. When parents don't listen to what you're saying, they just disregard it because you're the child, they're using [their] age as a weapon instead of a tool to help, and find common ground.

"With my relationship with my mum, when she listens to how I feel and takes my perspective into consideration we've developed a better relationship."

Sarah has offered to talk about some of the common challenges that teenagers and their parents face, to help parents understand a teenager's perspective better and figure out how to guide their own teen.

We've given her a couple of questions based on real-life situations that parents have shared with us, to get her started. Here's what Sarah had to say:

Sarah Martin is an 18-year-old school prefect from Auckland who is keen to help parents understand how teenagers think.

Q. My 15 year old daughter has just told me she is gay and I am having a lot of trouble accepting this. I hit the roof when she told me and I'm not sure where to go with her from here. How can she know this at 15?

A. As teenagers I think that we love to rush to label ourselves so that we have a sense of belonging, and so that we feel we fit into a group. If everyone around us has labels then we automatically want to label ourselves before anybody else has the opportunity to do so and save the embarrassment.

However, not everyone can understand their feelings whilst some of us have felt like we have always known - making it either harder or easier to label ourselves.

If she is coming to you and opening up to you then its probably a decision that has come with a lot of thinking and anxiety. Her sexuality has obviously been bothering her. But if she has come to you with this conclusion then she probably does know what she wants and has for a while, and talking to you has probably been a big deal for her.

Q. What do you say to your teenage kids when they want to go out and do things that you think puts them in risky situations? Ie. Go to outdoor movies where everyone knows the teenagers only go so they can hang out in big groups and drink alcohol?

A. I think it depends on the history of the teenager. If they have given you no reason to trust them in the past then I think being honest and saying that until they prove to you that they are trustworthy and won't make stupid decisions, then they shouldn't be allowed to go and do things that are typical of being dangerous and reckless. Giving them a reason will probably make them understand more your thoughts and feelings.

However, if they have never given you a reason to doubt their decision-making and they seem mature enough then I think you have to start trusting them and as a part of growing up you should let them make their own decisions if they have proven to think sensibly in the past. They will know whether or not it is safe and you should have faith in them to do the right thing because straight out saying no will confuse them especially if they aren't known for doing reckless things.

This will make it less likely that they will go behind your back which some teens feel like they have to do because of the denial of their parent's permission or proper reasoning for not allowing them to go. I think parents would rather know where their kids are than not knowing at all.