This early openness about sexual orientation carries a possible burden of its own, since adolescence can be such a vulnerable time, and being different can feel like something between a crime and a disease.
The strain of it all plays out in difficult and even risky ways, Ms. Kahn noted; studies suggest that gay teenagers have higher rates of suicide, depression and drug and alcohol abuse than their straight counterparts.
The reasons, she explained, include the stress of being different and being spurned by friends and family. Kahn said. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children had those worries as well — but they came after fears of rejection by parents and family, bullying at school and fear of coming out.
Seventeen percent of respondents who say they are openly gay encounter the harassment; while only 12 percent who are not openly gay reported the frequent harassment. View all New York Times newsletters.
Forty percent of those children who are out at school said they were very happy or pretty happy, compared with 33 percent of the closeted kids. To Ms. Kahn, that tips the scales toward openness, but with caution and compassion on the part of parents. A child might be well advised, she suggested, to come out to close friends at school but not broadcast sexual orientation to avoid harassment and stay focused on school. In our family, we knew that Joseph was probably gay, and we saw in problems he was having at school that he was under psychological pressure.
But we were reluctant to force him out of his closet.
And so we knew. Soon he came out at school as well. The most important thing, Ms.
Kahn said, is that parents need to find ways to let their children know that their love is unconditional, and that their home is a safe place where anything can be discussed. In other words, Ms. Kahn said, the job of the grown-ups is to help guide their children through adolescence. The terrain may be unfamiliar, but the role is not.
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Whatever the future held, I knew we were in it together. Symptoms vary from person to person, but for Daisy it involved low muscle tone, joint hypermobility and severe learning disability.
By the time we were given the full diagnosis, I was pregnant with my third child, who would complete our family. Intensely interested in his environment, Lenny was almost too able for his own good. Instead, he would spin the wheels of toy cars, staring at the spokes as they whizzed around.
At three, Lenny was diagnosed with classic autism and I had to tell my eldest daughter, Rosie, then seven, that she had not one but two disabled siblings. Rosie was bright, academic and inquisitive; I had noticed that she was a bit different from her peers, but had put that down to her being an old soul who liked adult company. But she was struggling socially at school and, at the age of nine, she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
Eventually, though, I braved the world.
We attracted curious stares everywhere we went: Lenny wanted only to perch on adult shoulders or run off at dazzling speed, Daisy needed a specialist pushchair, and Rosie dressed bizarrely and would often appear to be in her own imaginary world. And this is my brother Len-Lens — he has classic autism, which means he is brilliant at spinning. I have learned so much in my two decades of being a mother.
My children have been my best teachers, especially Rosie, who can often offer insight into what her younger siblings are feeling but cannot say. Encourage your friend to seek out whatever support is on offer from social and educational services. Support your friend to advocate for her child. As a mother, I need to feel positive about my children and want those involved in their care to see their strengths as well as challenges. Having a friend who knows my child come along to a difficult meeting to support me is invaluable.
But if your friend is feeling overwhelmed entering the world of special needs, she may need you to accompany her to initial meetings.
An inquisitive stare or an ill-judged remark can be the last straw. Having you by her side to fend off unwanted interest, or offer calm explanations will make all the difference. If you know her child well enough, offer to stay in the house occasionally and be the one to get up instead. Occasional respite care can be a godsend, allowing your friend time to invest in her marriage, spend time with her other children or just recharge her batteries. But the thought of allowing strangers to care for her child may fill her with guilt.
She may need you to help explore what local services can offer in the way of respite care. As the child grows older, their differences may become more apparent.