I work extensively with parents of LGBT+ youth and young adults. I run across a lot of family disconnection. With boys, that disconnection is rarely with their mother; it typically is with their father.
In such work, it must be stated upfront that the purpose is not to try to change a child’s sexual orientation. Parents often call Lead Them Home because of their child’s sexual orientation, but my objective is to change the relational orientation of the family. In so many cases, a family’s relational orientation is broken, distorted, torn and twisted: it must be reshaped in order to promote healthy connectivity within the family. This is my goal, and it almost always starts with father and son.
The consistent theme I encounter are sons who feel deeply rejected by or distant from their fathers. In private sessions (with Dad present), I hear all the reasons that boys and young men feel cut off from their fathers:
- “My dad never really seemed to like me. He liked my brothers more.”
- “My dad hates me. I know it. He treats me like he is repulsed by me.”
- “My friend is my dad’s ‘real’ son. I am just an outsider watching them pal around.”
- “My dad thinks I’m girlish. He gets pissed at how I talk and how I walk. To hell with him.”
- “My father has his interests. I have mine. Our paths simply never have crossed.”
- “My dad made it clear a long time ago: I am not a man like him. I don’t want to be like him.”
- “I used to dream that my dad would come rescue me, but he never reached out to me.”
You want to know the sad but resilient thing about this? Such sons never truly stop desiring their father’s love. I meet some sons who have had their self-esteem damaged by cruel or tough dads. Such young men may state how much they despise their father; but after digging deeper into their feelings, they almost always say they love their father and desire for a deeper connection.
The resilience of sons who still hunger for their father is a sadly beautiful thing. Most fathers are not cruel; they simply have allowed their own wounds and hang-ups and other priorities to distract them from their fathering role. The end result is an ambiguous distance and disconnection.
Whatever went wrong, some dads reach a point where they give up on their sons. Sons rarely give up on their dads. But you know what? Most dads I meet really have NOT given up on their sons; they simply are exhausted from fatherhood, marriage, career, and their own struggles or addictions. When I pry behind all the messy pain, we often find that such fathers also desire a deeper connection with their sons.
Roadblocks to Connection
So what are the roadblocks to a deeper connection between Dad and his son? Why do fathers reject their sons? Or why do some sons perceive rejection from their fathers?
Some fathers reject their sons because they feel rejected by their sons (see my next post). Some fathers don’t intend to reject their sons, but they end up conveying that rejection because they are overly committed to their work or otherwise are absent from the home. Some fathers have poor relational skills and cannot connect well with other males — or people in general — around emotions. This lack of emotional expression very often conveys rejection to sons (regardless of the son’s sexual orientation). Some fathers’ emotions are squashed by past family trauma or family traditions immersed in low emotional connectivity. In other words, most fathers do not intentionally reject their sons: it just happens.
In dealing with gay sons, there is another issue we must deal with. Fathers may be fearful of making their sons into sissies. In an attempt to toughen them up, they withdraw physical or emotional affection and replace it with overly rough play or demands that the son be someone he is not. There may be physical affection, but rough play can fail to convey safety. This is not to criticize rough play: there is a definite (and needed) place for healthy rough play. However, this simply cannot substitute for the safety of a son being held, snuggled or hugged by his father’s loving arms and being told how special he is.
I may paint a pretty picture of what things should look like; but often, real life does not look so pretty. Many times, this fear of having a sissy son leads fathers to be overly obsessed with looking for effeminate traits in their sons. On the one hand, it is understandable that fathers — who want to raise a moderately masculine son — look for signs of effeminacy. But if a father is not careful, he will turn ‘casual awareness’ into a forceful attempt to remove any and all effeminate traits from his son. Quickly, the son starts to internalize cues that his father does not accept him. In other words, the son starts to perceive and digest the bad soil of rejection.
Unfortunately, I rarely have the opportunity to work with 5-year old boys and their fathers! Rather, I most often see 13-21 year old young men after they have digested years of rejection. The perception of rejection usually gets established early on, and this pattern is never interrupted. It just kept going, going, going. And now, these young men are deeply wounded.
If only that 5-, 7- or 9-year-old boy could have verbalized his perception at the time. Many times, a son did verbalize such hurts but Dad did not hear his son’s cry. Other times, little boys simply cannot verbalize their emotional hurts. Whatever the reason, the opportunity to interrupt this pattern of perceived rejection is lost.
Believe me when I tell you that a 13-, 15- or 17-year old young man now knows exactly what happened in the past. Dad may only remember broad strokes of the past. He may only be able to say there was a ‘general’ distance. His son, on the other hand, oftentimes remembers all the gory details.
Such young men believe that their fathers did not find them to measure up, and they realize they were never — and still today are not — accepted. They are, in a word, rejected. Condemned. Virtually abandoned: emotionally left to solve their problem on their own.
Where do we go from here?
Thankfully, as I mentioned above, children are resilient! They rarely give up ‘total’ hope. Even if they are angry and hate their fathers, there is almost always a sliver of hope! I focus on identifying where the ‘slivers’ of hope are and work on widening those channels so that unconditional love, acceptance, physical touch and emotional connectivity can be deposited from dad to son.
What do fathers and sons think about all this? Many times, they are both excited. Many other times, one or both of them are very uncomfortable with the work this entails. For a father who is emotionally impotent to be confronted with his weakness when all he really wants is a “straight” son, it’s going to be tough for him to realize that the journey will require him to work 10x harder than his son. We are NOT out to “turn his son straight” — he has to let go of that demand. He has to open up to the reality that it is the relational orientation between he and his son that needs to get “straightened out.”
Some sons might feel quite uncomfortable and initially unwilling to give their father another chance: how can a son trust a father who has hurt him so many times? This is why God placed the gift of resiliency within the hearts of children! After some discussion, most sons are willing to at least give it one more try.
Our goal is to take a broken father-son relationship and rebuild that relationship by inviting God’s Holy Spirit to be present and bless our meeting times to reveal what needs to be uncovered. In our question-and-answer style conversations, many ‘slivers’ of hope get uncovered but at times it takes many hours to find even a single sliver of hope. We build on ANY amount of hope or openness that we can identify.
The Lake, the Sea, and the Dams
I describe it as a parable: we have a problem. We have a lake (father) that has retained too much water (love, touch, emotions). We have a sea (son) that is running dry (love, touch, emotions). Lakes do not connect with seas directly; they connect via rivers and streams (channels). Our goal is to get the water from the lake to the sea. But unfortunately, there are many dams (disconnection, distance, distrust) blocking our path. So as a team, our goal is to identify the dams and find out which ones we can open up so that water can flow to the sea more naturally.
For those in the gay community who think that evangelicals only want to change young people from gay to straight, this could not be further from the truth. What I want is to rebuild broken relationships. Yes, this can later serve as a bridge through which a young man or woman one day surrenders their homosexuality to God (at God’s initiative). But this bridge is the same bridge that will help a husband and wife have a better marriage; it is the same bridge that helps brothers and sisters get along better; it is the same bridge that helps sons and daughters have a healthier relationship with their parents; and it is the same bridge that helps young adults form more healthy and holistic romantic relationships into adulthood. In other words, healthy relational orientation can help bring healing to ANY kind of relationship.
For those in the evangelical community who feel uncomfortable that I am not just stating outright that homosexuality is sinful, I ask you to pause. Second, I ask for your patience with young people dealing with homosexuality. Third, I ask you to consider your own sins. Fourth, I ask you to remember Who does the changing in our lives. As I consider my own sinfulness, I realize how much patience, tolerance and kindness (Romans 2:1-4) that God has given me (and continues to give me). Dare I fail or refuse to extend the same to others? Amen.
I want to close with a word of encouragement. I have been somewhat graphic about the failures of fathers. Please understand, Dad, that I am with you 100%. No dad is perfect. Every dad makes plenty of mistakes. I know, as a father, that I have made plenty of mistakes. But Dad, let us move forward with the same resiliency that our children have!
I invite you to join me in having HOPE that relational repair between you and your son can and will happen. I have hope for you. This is NOT about shame and blame: this is about gaining a forward-looking strategy for letting our sons know how deeply we love and accept them; just as they are.
Click here to easily navigate to Part 2.
This series deals with fathers and sons. Relational orientation counseling can be a blessing to any parent of any child — boy or girl, gay or straight. If your family is in need of such counseling, contact me via our Contact Form or via phone at (978) 212-9630. You may also find more information about our Support Services here. I am happy to serve your family. God bless.