Source of Same-Sex Attractions in Children: Parenting and Social Influences
Father John Harvey Distinguishes the Difference
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NEW YORK, JAN. 24, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Most children who experiment with same-sex attractions as young adults are already predisposed to homosexual behavior because of their home environment, says a pastoral specialist.
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 how parents can educate themselves about same-sex attractions and how they can teach their children about healthy human sexuality. ZENIT's last interview with him appeared Nov. 16.
Q: You've mentioned that familial or parental situations may contribute to same-sex attractions. Is there a difference between children in these situations and youth who choose to experiment with homosexuality because of social influences?
Father Harvey: There's a significant difference between a child with same-sex attractions due to family environments rather than due to experimentation.
The difference is the youth choosing to experiment is comparatively rare, even though it seems to become "cool" at a high school and college level. Generally speaking, there's a high probability that those who are experimenting already had same-sex attractions and are expressing them in the college period.
It is not common for someone who thinks he or she is heterosexual and who is from a healthy family to move into experimentation. A trauma, such as a teen-age girl or boy being raped, may lead him or her to have same-sex attractions rather than opposite-sex attractions.
Sometimes there's a teen-age period when those who don't feel attracted to the opposite sex try a relationship with the opposite sex, and it doesn't work out. They also find out having sex with someone of the opposite sex is not a cure for same-sex attractions.
Some social influences that lead to youth engaging in homosexual behavior can be traced back to high school. Many felt alone because they had same-sex attractions and weren't fitting in well in the group. In college, they fell into a group of people with same-sex attractions, looking to each other for companionship. At this point, experimentation may happen among people who are already predisposed.
The more we study, the more we see the influence at home is early, in grade school, and even earlier.
But it's important to remember that teen-agers who think they have same-sex attractions aren't set for life. They say they're "gay," but they may not be.
When teens say they feel uncomfortable around peers of the same sex and are attracted to them, often they've also had difficulty relating to and identifying emotionally and psychologically with their same-sex parent -- it's just that the realization of this strained relationship doesn't happen until much later.
It must be noted that same-sex attractions can also be generated by the child's relationship with the parent of the opposite sex.
In my years of counseling women with same-sex attractions, I have met a number of women who believe that their same-sex attractions were mainly due to their relationship with their father. Both parents have a great influence on the child's sense of self-worth and gender identity. There can also be other traumatic experiences outside the family that contribute toward the development of same-sex attractions.
Although most cases of same-sex attractions begin in childhood, the teen-age period becomes critical -- either the teen is drawn toward acting out homosexually, or the teen gets help and learns to live a chaste lifestyle.
The teen may also be able to gradually work toward overcoming or at least minimizing homosexual attractions with the help of a good therapist and spiritual director.
Q: What can be done for children who have stable home lives but who are experimenting with homosexuality due to social influences?
Father Harvey: If the parents know that their child has experimented with homosexual acts, the child must be commanded to seek therapy from reliable Catholic doctors.
If it is a stable home life in the full sense, where the child has a good relationship with both parents, then the parents simply need to continue to develop a healthy home environment while being mindful of external influence on the family, especially on the child.
These "external influences" may surface in adolescence and early college years when young people are found in a scholastic environment where it is considered "cool" to be homosexual or bisexual. If the individual already has some degree of same-sex attractions, he may slip into homosexual acts and thus be seduced into a homosexual way of living.
A healthy home environment presupposes that the children are learning to relate well to both parents. If you don't see that, there are some problems.
Social influences and difficulties can occur if a teen goes out with companions that don't agree with the teen's parents and don't have Christian values. Parents need to talk to their children, give their child thorough instruction on the purpose and meaning of human sexuality, and the beauty of marriage as union of a man and a woman. It's seldom done. The writings of Christopher West on Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body" are most helpful.
Parents are afraid to tell their youngsters what to do, and at 18 teens have their freedom to do whatever they please. The most pernicious teachers of young people are the media.
Q: What aid can be given to parents who may not be willing or able to examine whether their children are showing signs of same-sex attraction?
Father Harvey: Often parents are afraid that their child has same-sex attractions but do not want to seek professional help in order to ascertain their child's inner tendencies.
The problem is that parents are not given real knowledge of signs of homosexual inclinations. Also, when someone from the outside -- a doctor, psychiatrist, priest, friend -- tells parents that their child may have same-sex attractions, the parents have a very hard time with it. They do not want to believe it.
Many parents won't listen, but someone on the adult level needs to make those parents aware that their child is crying out -- they need to get help for their children and get educated themselves about same-sex attractions. There are books that are helpful -- for example, Don Schmierer's book, "An Ounce of Prevention."
Parents are sometimes unreachable -- there's a lot of denial. The parents do not want to believe that their child has same-sex attractions or that their child will lead a homosexual lifestyle if he or she is not helped.
Parents who have gotten beyond the propaganda that a homosexual lifestyle is normal and acceptable think about how difficult it will be for themselves and their child. They think that they can't look forward to their child's marriage and grandchildren, and they are very concerned about that.
How to deal with parents who don't understand or aren't willing to see the signs of same-sex attraction is a most difficult question to answer, because it's very hard to know what to do. Over a few months of talking to those parents, you'll figure out a way to help the parents and the child.
The signs of same-sex attractions are sometimes very well covered. A big youth who is a football player can have same-sex attractions. A little one who is not athletic may be heterosexual. There are many problems interpreting the signs, but most often, it can be determined by the relationship with parents, siblings and same-sex peers.
It is very hard, because often the child won't tell you the truth, yet some will talk to a counselor. Sometimes teens who are traumatized keep it inside themselves. When they finally talk about it, no matter their age, they still can be helped with any same-sex attractions.
Q: What is the necessary healthy psychological environment that parents need to build into their marriage and family in order to prevent or to help heal same-sex attractions in children?
Father Harvey: Parents working together with their children produce a healthy psychological environment. In a home where parents and children like to spend time together, both children who are heterosexual or who have same-sex attractions will benefit from it.
At the same time, the parents need to make it clear that they need time together in order to sustain their marriage. Youngsters need to see their father and mother embrace regularly. Often, children with same-sex attractions come from a home where they don't see their parents embrace.
If a child comes from a home with no sign of affection between parents or siblings, it's difficult for a child with same-sex attractions to rightly order his affection and attractions.
You can't talk to your kids about homosexuality alone -- it needs a background. First, you have to talk to them about theology and God's plan for the human person, then heterosexuality, then homosexuality.
The best approach for single parents is to find someone in the family to give the child some companionship and instruction, and act as a role model. A single mother needs to find an uncle or someone in the family to relate to her son, and vice versa with a single father and his daughter. It's the parent's prerogative and privilege to do that for his or her child.
It's a long process to heal sexual identity. It doesn't take place all at once. It can start at 3 or 4 years old -- when kids start showing signs of same-sex attraction -- and can go through the teen-age and adult years. It has to be put in a larger perspective.
I find two factors helpful for teen-agers: professional therapy with a good therapist who is faithful to the Church's teachings; and spiritual direction and prayer.
Q: The Catechism of the Catholic Church [No. 2358] says that people with same-sex attractions do not choose their homosexual condition. From your point of view, does that mean that it is not a learned behavior?
Father Harvey: One of the ways that homosexual activity is "learned" is when a person is introduced to that form of activity by another person. There are other ways that one may learn homosexual activity, such as through the things that they watch or read. However, the homosexual condition itself generally develops involuntarily.
I don't believe that anyone chooses to have same-sex attractions. The homosexual condition has emotional roots and is influenced by attitudes in the mind that come about because of various external events.
However, it is not a real choice because that person usually didn't have control over the circumstances and traumas that influenced the development of same-sex attractions. Real choice involves full knowledge and advertence in the mind and freedom in the will.
The evidence leans heavily on the fact that same-sex attractions are due largely to environmental causes. There's no evidence of inborn homosexuality -- it doesn't exist. There is a hundred years of evidence that same-sex attractions are related to environmental factors and psychological influences. All the evidence before 1973 pointed to environmental factors. Then came the idea that it is related to genetics. So far, there is no evidence that it is genetic.
People who have same-sex attractions sometimes conclude that that is their identity. But the identity is always developing; it takes a long while for people to mature in their identity.
Our true identity is that we are creatures of God, men and women with intelligence and free will. And when we are baptized, we become brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.