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How to Approach the Topic of Sexual Orientation with Your Teen

Adolescence is a time when children begin to mature and experience mental and physical changes. As these changes begin, some adolescents may start to question their sexuality. Unfortunately, too often children find themselves unable to fully embrace themselves and who they are, which impacts their mental and physical health. Dr. Linderholm will explain how kids may be dealing with trying to figure out their own sexuality, what parents can do to support them, and the services offered at the MemorialCare Medical Group Family Medicine Clinic to assist parents and other loved ones. 

How to Approach the Topic of Sexual Orientation with Your Teen
Featured Speaker:
Wendy Linderholm, PsyD

Dr. Wendy Linderholm is a Clinical Health Psychologist with specific training in family practice and patient populations. She completed her undergraduate work at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and her Doctor of Psychology degree at the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles. Dr. Linderholm has an interest in oncology, HIV and AIDS, neurological disorders and the relationship of lifestyle and stress to health. Dr. Linderholm believes that family medicine is the gateway to all health care and represents a unique opportunity for assessment, education, and appropriate referrals to create the best care for all.

How to Approach the Topic of Sexual Orientation with Your Teen

Deborah Howell (Host): You know, most people can talk to your kids about almost anything, but one topic can be somewhat uncomfortable to broach. So how best to approach the topic of sexual orientation with your teen? Welcome. I'm Deborah Howell, and today let's get some tips about how to handle that conversation. Our guest is Dr. Wendy Linderholm, a Clinical Health Psychologist and Director of Behavioral Medicine at Memorial Care Medical Group. Hello, Dr. Linderholm. So glad you're with us today.

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

Host: Let's jump right in. How does puberty impact sexuality?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: In all the ways that you remember puberty affecting your sexuality, right? You start to notice what's going on with your body, you start to notice other people, you start to be interested, we take cues from our environment, so we get really interested in being with other people and moving that past these close friendships we have in our um, young childhood into that like more intense sexual touching. Who's got what kind of stuff in puberty.

Host: I love it. Who's got what? Let's figure this out. So, what challenges do adolescents encounter when exploring their own sexuality?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: One of the things that I think about when I talk about kids and parenting is that kids are people, and that they are, we're going to be adults longer than anything else in our life. So we spend a lot of time as parents and adults in kids lives worrying about kids and keeping kids kids. But we, our big goal in my opinion, is to really help kids be the adults that they need to be when they get there.

They don't just magically open their eyes one day and are adults. We have to help guide them into that place. So, all of the stuff about how do we talk to kids about sex, how do we talk about consent, how do we talk about safety, all of this stuff is happening as soon as our kids come out. So what happens is we get really worried about adolescence, when in fact we're doing a lot of the work really early, when we're talking about genitals, when we're talking about cleaning diapers. I kind of back up that question about challenges to way earlier.

Host: That's very valid. And when could someone begin to question their sexuality? Is there a certain sort of age range?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: The research is really interesting. It's that there are kids that know their bodies as soon as they notice that they have bodies, which can be as early as two and three and four years old, that maybe their bodies don't feel quite right or that they have interest in different genders sexually. If you are listening to this podcast, are you, Deborah, thinking about, like, when I've been talking to a little kid, maybe a toddler or a preschooler, we talk about crushes that early, right? Oh, do you love so and so in class? And when we think about that, that feels really normal when we're talking about opposite gender attraction.

And that happens with same gender attraction or like many gendered attractions, so it can happen really early. It doesn't always, but it's certainly part of that puberty where people are starting to be interested in having more physical contact with other people that they start to notice, like, who is it that I'm attracted to?

For a lot of kids, they know early. Some kids, they don't know till late. Some folks don't even realize because of homophobia in the community until like way into their adulthood. So it can kind of happen at any time.

Host: Yeah, so what percentage of adolescents identify as questioning their sexuality?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Questioning? The numbers are going sky high. I'm not an expert with kids, but what we have noticed is that more and more teens are identifying as non binary. More and more teens are identifying as bisexual, as pansexual, which means attracted to all kinds of different genders, so the numbers are really fluid It used to be that like there was one to two percent and it's been growing and moving. It really depends on how safe the community is that you live in, on how much you're going to identify whether or not you're questioning or seeking out other types of relationships.

Host: All right. So, doctor, what is a good time to talk with your adolescent about sexuality?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Well, I love talking about sex. I think it's super important, so I think it should start very early. Those folks with kids know that kids ask very early. It can be really about our uncomfortableness talking about it that we wait. But kids are very early talking about their genitals because we are doing a lot of work around that when we're diapering and potty training. And so that the way that we talk about that very much leads our kids to understand our own feelings about our sexuality and our own bodies. So as a therapist, I think that how we talk about one thing is kind of how we talk about everything, right? If you've ever had a kid repeat the horrible word that you said in traffic, like an hour later, you know that they're parroting us.

They know what we're doing. They're really watching us. So the way that we talk about our own bodies, about sexuality, about gay, bi, lesbian relationships in our communities, they're picking that information up. So how we talk about it always is important. And, noticing, like, what do I believe? How do I think about this?

Host: Yeah, exactly. And if a parent hasn't talked to their teen about sexuality, what signs might they look for to know that their young adult might be struggling?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Isolation is always our hallmark behavior for everything worrisome. When kids pull away, when adults pull away, if you had a really chatty teen and they stopped being chatty, if they don't want to be going to school, if they don't engage in their activities, these are all big signs to be worried about, like, do we need some extra support?

 Kids tend not to be super communicative, very specifically, right? They're doing that separation from their parents, and parents are, to use their words, super cringy or choogy, right? So, like, ugh, I can't talk to you about that.

Host: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, exactly.

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: But you live together, so, you know, use your spidey senses. If, if there's something off, there's probably something off.

Host: And they're the person that's known you the longest, right?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Absolutely.

Host: Now how should a parent or legal guardian start a conversation about sexuality or approach their adolescent about their sexual orientation?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Again, I think this starts really early. Some great ways to talk about it are to talk about how to be safe around other people and how to be safe online, how to make decisions about consent. So how am I putting myself on social media in a safe way?

Kids tend not to have an understanding about how big the world is and how big the internet is. And so putting pictures up or talking to people feels like it is at school, but it might not be that safe. So those are places to really talk about how do you keep yourself safe? What are ways to protect your identity, your body, while still exploring?

So how do you have safe exploration, whether that's with masturbation and with yourself, when and where is that appropriate, when and where is appropriate like being with other people, strangers and not strangers are safe, there's some really good information on, there's a non profit called Parents Together, and they have a pretty good social media presence.

What I love about them is that they have actual scripts about how to have these conversations. And they're social media, so they're really small, small clips, but actual words on how to have these awkward conversations. So it's called Parents Together.

Host: Oh, that's beautiful because we can respond and, and, you know, mimic or use our own words, but we have at least sort of a template.

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Yes, because it's so awkward, and I think that's my biggest recommendation is like, know that it's going to be awkward. It's hard to talk about sex with your partner or partners, so of course it's going to be awkward with your kid. Your job is to help them learn how to do that, and then you just keep at it.

It's going to be weird, the first time is going to be the worst, and then do it again, and do it again, and laugh about it, and like, keep at it, because it's hard.

Host: Humor goes a long way.

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: For sure. Also like, you, want them to be able to talk about it, because there's a lot of big stuff going on out there.

Host: Sure. And you said it's your job and that leads me to ask you, how can parents or legal guardians be supportive if their adolescent is questioning their sexuality?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Again, I think it's how you talk about it. Where do you go? What do you do in your community? What is your personal belief about what that means? And doing some exploration of that. If, if it's hard for you and it doesn't feel like it aligns with your values that your kid might have a different sexuality; do some work about that. What does that mean to you and then how do you show up for them? There's lots of ways to go into your faith communities or your other communities to talk about that stuff. What does it mean to actually keep our kids safe? We know that kids who are in the LGBTQ community have higher rates of homelessness, higher rates of depression and anxiety, higher rates of suicidality and dying by suicide.

So our goal is literally to keep them alive. So how do we balance that with like, I don't feel comfortable with this versus like, what if they leave my home because they don't feel comfortable with me? What does that mean? And like, these are real things. How do we really talk about them? And what does it mean to like be supportive?

How do I talk to counselors at school? How do I get my kid into therapy? How do I find other people who might have a lifestyle that aligns with theirs? Because if I don't know, how do I find people who do that, you know, who are in that place?

Host: Information is power. Yeah, for sure. What should parents or legal guardians cover when discussing sexuality with their teenager?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: My biggest things are always consent. How to say no, the difference between secrets and surprises, and this is really for little kids, but it goes up through adults. Abuse and assault really hinges on that isolation and secrets. You're going to get in trouble if you tell about what's been going on.

And so teaching kids about how to differentiate between secrets and surprises. Surprises are things like birthday parties. Secrets are, we don't allow secrets here. We don't want secrets. We want you to tell everything. So it can start small like that and then move up into, how do you like to be touched, who do you want to have sex with, what does sex mean to you, right?

And so we can go to the whole very far end that not a lot of people are comfortable with, but start with the like, this is your body and only you get control over it.

Host: Okay. Sounds good. Now, at what point would you recommend that parents encourage their adolescent to seek counseling services? You mentioned therapy earlier.

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Um, I think anytime, all the time. I'm just a big proponent of learning about yourself. I think an important point of information for parents to know is that kids are, again, they are people and they have their own rights. So kids have the legal right to go to therapy without parental consent starting at the age of 12. If kids are struggling, they can go directly to school and get counseling if their home place isn't safe. But I think reading books, going to different activities, getting involved in your community. Where we are, in Long Beach, we have an amazing Parks and Rec organization and we have an amazing library organization that does a lot of really cool stuff.

So if you don't feel like you know everything, there are lots of free things to go to, to kind of expand your awareness, what's going on, how do I be, how do I show up, for my kid and just get curious.

Host: Exactly.

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Like, you don't have to go to a Pride parade, even though it's super fun, but you can start with just a book.

Host: Sure. Sure. You know, everybody is so individual, and they have their own way and their own preferences. So just, you do you, right?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Yeah. I think it's important practice, like, being not good at stuff, right? If we wait to be good at having this conversation, if we wait to be good about talking about sexual assault and abuse, we're never going to do it. So it's do it early, do it often, be bad at it, be uncomfortable, be awkward. Like that, really role models to your kid, not only that this stuff is important, but also not being good at stuff is fine. Take away some of that perfectionism that most of us kind of roll in all the time.

Host: Yeah. And be bad at it until you get better at it and until it becomes more comfortable.

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Sure. Mm hmm.

Host: So they know where they can go. They have a resource in you. They have a resource in therapy. Once again, can you mention, is it Parents Together?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Parents Together. Yeah, it's a non profit, it's online video list on how to talk to kids about sex under Sexplanations. So it's like explanations, but Sexplanations, the YouTube channel. Really great to watch together, right? So if you're uncomfortable uncomfortable watching those How to Talk to Kids About Sex Together. They're short videos. It can be really helpful.

Deborah Howell (Host): Oh, that's awesome. Before we leave, is there anything else you'd like to add to our conversation today?

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Oh my goodness. Probably a bunch. I think, like always, just get curious, slow down, it gets really, this stuff gets really uncomfortable. But it's okay. This is part of life where our job as adults in kids lives is to be, help them become the adults that they need to be, so that they can engage in the world and be healthy parts of our community and so what is our job like on the day to day basis? What can I do to help this kid be that? Whether it's learning how to do their own laundry or have healthy sexual relationships with the people in their lives. All of that stuff like it doesn't have to be this big knock down drag out one conversation. It's just my life. How I live my life is how my kids are going to learn how to live theirs. And so taking care of ourselves as adults is the best way to learn how to take care of our kids.

Host: And I just want to add, love the kid you have. That's who he or she or they are. Just love the kid you have.

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Yeah. absolutely.

Host: Well, thank you Dr. Linderholm, for your time and your expertise today. We really enjoyed having you on the podcast.

Wendy Linderholm, PsyD: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

Host: And for more information or to listen to a podcast of this show, please visit That's That's all for this time. I'm Deborah Howell. Have yourself a terrific day.