Recognizing and Treating Same-Sex Attractions in Children

Father John Harvey Gives Tips for Parents

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NEW YORK, NOV. 16, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Parents who think their children may have same-sex attractions can look for specific signs and seek effective psychological and spiritual treatment for their kids, says an expert in the field.



Father John Harvey, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, is founder of Courage, a Catholic apostolate for adults with same-sex attractions, and is co-editor of "Same-Sex Attraction: A Parent's Guide" Ignatius).

He shared with ZENIT what are the main factors that may contribute to same-sex attractions in children and what parents can do to help their child.

Q: Could you briefly explain what are the roots of same-sex attractions?

Father Harvey: There are many roots of same-sex attractions. From many years of research and pastoral practice I believe that there are four principal factors, which, individually or collectively, contribute to same-sex attractions.

One is the inability of the child to identify with the gender of the same-sex parent. This occurs when the same-sex parent does not make himself or herself psychologically accessible to the child, and in this context child includes adolescents.

In her book "Psychogenesis and the Early Development of Gender Identity," Elizabeth Moberly explains the need of the child to identify with the same-sex parent. By identifying with his father, a little boy begins the process of achieving masculinity; by identifying with her mother, a little girl begins a similar process toward femininity.

The second factor is an overweening relationship with the opposite-sex parent. For example, a mother of a large family, whose husband was working several jobs, formed an excessively close relationship with her youngest son and confided in him her own dissatisfaction with her husband. She really blocked her son's access to his father. It must be kept in mind that parents are usually unaware of the harm that they do to the child.

The third aspect is a failure to identify with members of one's own sex during childhood and adolescence. A son who has not identified with his father, or even older brothers, will lack confidence in his relationships with other boys in their games. He will tend to spend time with girls as his companions. He tends to avoid team sports games. During adolescence he find himself yearning to touch other youth, about whom he has erotic fantasies.

Another example is a girl who perceives her mother as weak, because she always gave into her domineering father. The girl tells herself that she is not going to be weak like her mother -- she'll be like her father. She becomes aggressive like him and later feels physically attracted to women.

The fourth contributing factor is emotional and sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence. An example of emotional abuse would be a father who gives special attention to several older sons who excel in team sports, while neglecting the youngest son who does not engage in sports. An example of sexual abuse would be sexual seduction of an adolescent by an adult.

Girls can be emotionally abused in many ways. Some girls are treated as a boy, spending little time with girls and much time with boys in sporting events; other girls are emotionally neglected by the father -- who is often alcoholic -- and witness the father mistreating the mother.

Many girls, in grade school or high school, have suffered sexual abuse, and the trauma turns them away from the male sex. Physical sexual abuse can lead to same-sex attractions in youth.

Q: How can parents recognize if their child is sexually attracted to others of the same sex, or may be vulnerable to developing such attractions?

Father Harvey: It is not easy to recognize signs in a child indicating future same-sex attractions. I shall give some signs for each sex.

Signs for a boy include a little boy who likes to dress up in girls' clothes -- sometimes this began with the mother dressing him like a little girl.

Other signs are if one son in a family is different from his brothers; if a boy is not involved in sports; if he is a loner who spends endless hours on the Internet; if, as an adolescent, he spends much time with one or two other boys who are also loners; if most of his close friends are girls; if he has feminine mannerisms; if he has a distant relationship with his father; and if he tends to prefer his sisters to his brothers. Very often a child with same-sex attractions is the youngest in a family.

It is more difficult to recognize signs of same-sex attractions in girls because the signs are not really visible during childhood. Tomboys often grow up very feminine. Perhaps during adolescence the parents may notice that their daughter does not show interest in being with young men, but, on the contrary, spends her time with a few other girls who also are not dating boys. Sometimes she is a loner who spends many hours on the Internet.

In cases of divorce, particularly when the mother makes her daughter her confidante, the young lady will feel no physical attraction to male youth because of her bitter memories toward her father. Sometimes the young woman is frightened by the way her father treated her mother and herself.

Much of this develops at first on the unconscious level. Sometimes youth say that they cannot understand why they have same-sex attractions. I suggest that they see a psychoanalyst to explore their unconscious motivation.

Q: What can parents do on their own to help their child with same-sex attractions?

Father Harvey: Presupposing that parents notice something wrong in the mood and behavior of their child, they can encourage their child to spend more time with other children of the same sex.

It is prudent to bring the child to a reliable clinical psychologist, especially if parents see a sudden change of behavior -- school grades dropping, child withdrawn and moody, and so on. Often, the child has been traumatized and is afraid to tell parents, because he is afraid that his mother will not believe him.

For example, a 17-year-old boy became depressed after suffering abuse from a friend of the family. His grades in school dropped. Finally he told his mother. Again, parents should be alert to the dangers of Internet, particularly when a youngster spends many hours by himself.

Q: What resources outside of the family do you recommend for treatment of same-sex attractions?

Father Harvey: I recommend clinical psychologists and psychiatrists who agree with Catholic teaching that homogenital acts are always seriously immoral in the objective order.

I realize that in many instances, the person with same-sex attractions may be ignorant of Church teachings or may be addicted to sexual behavior, and consequently not incur the guilt of mortal sin.

I advise the person with presumable same-sex attractions who is under 18 years of age to visit a therapist to see if he really has same-sex attractions. With regard to those over 18 years, I recommend that they find the Courage group located nearest to them.

I also see the necessity for anyone with same-sex attractions to find a spiritual director who can work with a reliable therapist to help the person both psychologically and spiritually. There are also forms of family therapy in which the therapist will engage the parents as well as the person.

Q: How are same-sex attractions treated and overcome?

Father Harvey: There are many treatments for same-sex attractions developed over the years. The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality [NARTH] reaches out to the thousands who desire not only to be chaste, but also to recover their natural and God-given inclinations as far as possible.

One can choose to develop a life of interior chastity and to use the known means of reducing same-sex attractions to the point where they are not obstacles to progress toward union with Jesus Christ. The pioneering work of Leanne Payne and Elizabeth Moberly has influenced hundreds of therapists in the United States in their efforts to help people with same-sex attractions.

There is no infallible method that brings people with same-sex attractions out of this condition, but NARTH reports in a recent study that one-third fully recovers his natural, heterosexual inclinations; one-third significantly improves; and one-third does not improve at all.

Q: Teen-agers are increasingly confronted in the media with the message that same-sex relations are perfectly normal. How can parents deal with this problem?

Father Harvey: Not only are teen-agers confronted with this message, but adults and parents as well. Unfortunately, many teen-agers and adults -- including parents -- accept the messages that same-sex attractions are perfectly normal.

It becomes, then, very difficult for parents who believe in the Church's teaching concerning homosexual behavior to persuade their teen-age son or daughter -- perhaps already brainwashed by the Gay-Straight Alliance -- to accept the teaching of the Church.

Perhaps the long-term approach of teaching one's children over the years the full teaching of the Church on human sexuality is the best way of educating children and preparing them for the battle between the culture and the Church.