Parenting Your LGBTQ Teen with Guest Heather Hester

This week the Mental Health Mamas are joined by fellow mom and podcaster, Heather Hester. Heather is the host of Just Breathe: Parenting Your LGBTQ Teen and a Coming Out Coach for parents, a process she believes to be equal parts beautiful and messy. Tune in to hear Heather chat with Tina and Serena about her family’s story, ways in which we can support our kids while also supporting ourselves.

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Tina: Hey everyone, I'm Tina

Serena: And I'm Serena and we are the Mental Health Mamas.


Tina: Welcome to No Need to Explain. We are so glad you're here.

Serena: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Tina: We come to not as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as parents with lived experience who are on a mission to normalize the conversation around mental health.

Serena: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You will find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website,

Tina: We often say that we all have mental health. We say that really often. And while, this is definitely true. We've also shared in the past that there are certain segments of the population that tend to have a greater incidence of mental health struggles than the average population.

Serena: Right, and so we're talking about any of our marginalized communities. They tend to be at a greater risk for mental health struggles. Today, we're going to be focusing specifically on LGBTQ youth who experience greater risk for mental health conditions and suicidality. According to the NAMI website, and that's the National Alliance on Mental Illness, LGBTQ youth are more than twice as likely to report experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness than their heterosexual peers.

Tina: Today, we have a guest with us who's going to talk about her personal experiences raising an LGBTQ teen. Heather Hester is the founder of Chrysalis Mama, which provides support and education to parents and allies of LGBTQIA adolescents, teenagers, and young adults. She's also the creator and host of the podcast, Just Breathe, Parenting Your LGBTQ Teen. As an advocate and a coach for parents and allies, she believes that the coming out process is equal parts beautiful and messy. She's a writer. She is married to her best friend, and she's been married for 27 years. She's a mother of four extraordinary kids, two of whom have the LGBTQIA label, I guess, I don't know. And a student of life who believes in being authentic and embracing the messiness. Heather, welcome to the podcast.

Heather: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me. And I am delighted to be here and to talk about this topic that is so, so very important. So thank you for doing what you do and for just offering education and for normalizing this.

Tina: Well, that's what we're here for, normal. We just want everything to be normal, right? So let's begin by having you identify the acronym LGBTQIA. And sometimes there's a plus on the end of that. I just, I'm very deliberate when I say it. I don't want to miss any of them. And we just want to make sure that our listeners understand what we're talking about.

Heather: Of course, of course. Well, it's tricky because, you know, started out as LGB and then LGBT and it does get confusing. And certainly, you know, I run through it because I can, I've been doing it for five years. So now it's natural, but it's a lot of letters. So L is lesbian. Then G gay, B bisexual T transgender. Q is queer. Now some people do say that Q is questioning. I am from the school of thought that it is queer and queer is an umbrella term that has been basically reclaimed by the LGBTQ community. When we were all young, it was definitely a slur. And so it is a word that has been reclaimed and now people. So it's one of those things that I always kind of make clear that if you are part of the community, if you identify as one of the letters, right, you can say I'm queer. I cannot say it, right? And so that's like an identifier there with that letter. And then I stands for intersex A is asexual and the plus, you know, really then kind of covers, you know, all the, there's so many beautiful identities and orientations. So that is what the plus, you know, non-binary, gender fluid, aromantic, I mean, I could go on and on. So that's what the plus is there for.

Tina: All right, and I will say I probably misspoke earlier when I said label, it's an identity, right? Definitely more of an identity.

Heather: So it's an identity or an orientation. So that's what I, you know, I too have learned over time. So it is, that's the, I think the best way to be able to explain it or to talk about it.

Serena: Thanks for sharing that Heather. And we're gonna, we'll talk about your website in a little bit where you actually have all these definitions and lots of really great resources. But let's start by having you share a bit of your story. So you're what we refer to as an expert by experience or EBE. So can you share about your family's personal experience of your son coming out to you at the age of 16?

Heather: Sure, absolutely. I love that. I think I'm gonna have to borrow that, the expert by experience.

Tina: Please, please go for it.

Heather: I will, I will give you credit. Um, so yeah, so my son, I have four kids. Connor is the son that I'm speaking of is my oldest. And when he was 16, he did come out to us as gay. And we did not see it coming. We were absolutely blindsided by the news. He came out to us in a very dramatic fashion. My husband and I happened to be out of town. And my parents who are very conservative Christian were watching my four children. And Connor essentially having what we learned later. He had been really struggling with his identity with his orientation and having them there and knowing how they believed just completely sent him over the edge and sent him running. So he ran away from home and that was the call that my husband and I got in the middle of the night when we were halfway across the country. And, and it was the, you know, when I finally when we finally tracked him down after a few hours and he's crying and he says, you know, mom, I've got to tell you something. And he says, you know, what? Because I'm just relieved at that point, right? And I'm gay and I'm like, hey thank God because I thought you were dead, right? That's all that matters, right? You know, it's one of those moments. And the thing is boiled down and you realize like, nothing else matters. Like everything else is figure outable. Like that is something that I love from Marie Fraleo. Everything is figure outable. He's a lot, we can figure out everything else, you know, and go home, we'll handle grandma and grandpa and they don't need to know, right? Cause that was this big thing, like I'm so afraid. 

And so, you know, that's kind of where it all started and that is, you know, at the beginning, those first eight to 12 months were really, really difficult because the wheels, even though he told us and you would think like that would have been the, okay, he's told us, yay. That's actually where the wheels started falling off the bus because he then just spiraled into this horrible, not only was his mental health really affected and was he really struggling? His physical health was really affected. And as you both know, they're all intertwined, right? So it was a, for us, just an immediate, there was no, like, learning curve. There was nothing soft and curvy about any of this. It was jagged and scary and awful. And every time we felt like we had learned something, figured out how to support him, you know, let's find a therapist, okay, we find a therapist. Well, then something else happens, right? Essentially what we learned in those first few months was that we needed to find support, support for him and support for us and support for the rest of our family. 

And it was a, you know, there were a lot of things we were learning all at once. We were learning about mental health, which up to that point, we didn't know anything about, right? It wasn't something that, you know, we're all taught how to take care of our physical health. We're not ever taught to have to take care of our mental health and what to look for. And, you know, when certain things come up, how do you, what strategies do you use? What tools do you look for, right? And then of course that went into physical health. So then we're, how do we, you know, help this kid who's struggling with self harm? And then who's using substance use and abuse as a way to cope with, you know, all of this kind of went back to the self-loathing, you know, I hate who I am, I hate who I am, that's what it was. And, but it took us a long time to figure out that that's what it was, right? And to kind of back it all up and be like, okay, well, this is, this is where we have to find support for this, this kid. And this is where he's, he needs to just kind of sit and be and process and learn to love who he is and learn who he is as a person, his authentic self is beautiful and wonderful and worthy. And that's not something that we as parents can make happen.

Tina: So I would say you're talking about, so I will add having, I can relate to this and that we have gay relatives as well. And I think it's difficult for them as people to come to terms with all the things you're talking about. But, you know, the other thing is about the world, right? And all the outside influences and dealing with everything in the outside, which is a whole extra number of layers that I think it's hard, like, yeah, we accept that your gay is awesome. I'm so glad you can find out who you are and there's so many layers.

Heather: Right. Well, I mean, they're getting constant messaging, right? And it's not getting better. I mean, it's, you know, I guess in some ways it is, but in other ways it's definitely not. And that messaging is in their face all the time. They see on a daily basis that there's a faction, a faction of people out in the world who are, not only don't like them, like, are, say, very violent, ugly things about who they inherently are as human beings.

Tina: Yeah. Yeah, I hear you. And, you know, this next piece that I will quote, you know, you've done some writing and I'll quote it. And the fact that we love them unconditionally and the, you know, want to support them. And so you write, "We naively thought that we could love and support him to rescue him from this desperate hell." So talk a little bit more about that.

Heather: Oh, my goodness. I think that is such a kind of a statement of where we were and so where so many parents find themselves. Whether it's, you know, parenting a child who is LGBTQIA or who is just considered, you know, quote, different in any way. Right. And it's that like, we just want to like fix it. We just want, you know, we want to, we love them so much. We unconditionally love them and we want the whole world to unconditionally love them, but we can't make that happen. And we can't make them unconditionally love themselves. So it was definitely, like, when we realized that that loving him was not going to basically, you know, rescue him, right? Like I said, that he was going to have to rescue himself. So how, how then it shifted into that? How do we help him help himself? What tools does he need to have in place? What processes, you know, what process does he need to go through? What kind of support does he need to learn? The things that he needs to learn and of course being a teenager as you both know simultaneously dealing with this.

Tina: Yeah.

Heather: Like, I mean, come on. Like, it's just cruel.

Serena: Right. Right.

Heather: So it is, but I think when we realize that when we realized, okay, we can't fix this. And this is something that we kind of have to turn over and, and find we can advocate, right? And we can support and we can find, put the people in place, but then this is kind of empowering him to do his own work. Right. Empowering them to figure out who they are and create those boundaries so they can do it in a safe way.

Serena: I think that, that perpetual sort of learning to let go as a parent. I think that's the hardest thing about parenting in some ways.

Heather: It’s the worst.

Serena: So in your role as a coming out coach, which I love that term, and perhaps drawing on your own experiences, what are some of the biggest concerns parents have around their child coming out?

Heather: I think one of the biggest ones is that their life is going to be harder. This is just going to be hard. And that's not necessarily inaccurate, but it's, it's kind of learning how to take that concern and know what ways to support or what things to help, you know, help them help their child kind of put in place, right? And it's looking at things like, okay, well, we recognize this. So then we need to find like where our, you know, for instance, Connor was still in high school. So what are, he wants to go to college? What are colleges that are safe places for him to go? Where he's likely to meet people who he will connect with, right? So it's those kind of looking at those different concerns, but that there are solutions for those concerns. It's just, it is a little bit more difficult. I think another one is, you know, will they find, you know, true love, true friendship, you know, how, how do they navigate relationships? And, and another one too. But, and I think this is kind of a very initial, especially for parents who are very surprised by the news, is that, you know, well, what if they change their mind? What do we do if they change their mind? And so those are kind of the big three that I, that I hear.

Tina: Mm-hmm. Well, and I'm just going to say this out loud, right? We're living in a world that is a little rough right now, a lot rough right now. And that I can imagine is a fear that's bubbling up.

Heather: Oh.

Tina: Is where do we go to be safe? Because many places, even that we think are safe are not safe.

Heather: Correct. Yeah. Correct. Well, and it's that whole extra added layer of, you know, kind of like for any of us who have daughters and who are female ourselves, like we had to learn extra things in order to be safe, right? We have to teach our daughters.

Tina: Right.

Heather: This is something that it's like an extra layer of, okay, this is, it's a, it's a necessary thing that we have to do right now. So, you know, you have to learn how to be safe, and you have to put yourself in places that are more likely to be safe and be aware of your surroundings.

Tina: Exactly. Exactly. All.

Heather: No matter where you are.

Tina: I think that's true for all of us. Yeah. Having been raised like I was, I was always looking around. So, yes, for sure. So, let's shift a little bit. You have an amazing website with lots of great resources, including a glossary of terms around sexual orientation and gender identity. We would love for you to share your website with our listeners, but also share some of the helpful resources. In other words, you know, what are, what are some of those things that you direct families towards? So, let's start with the website.

Heather: Sure. So, my website is That's chrysalis, like the butterfly cocoon. And, and then some of the ways, my favorite resources, that I tend to send people to three in particular.

The first is the Trevor Project. And, I believe, I think you are both aware of the Trevor Project, because they are a beautiful mix of mental health support for LGBTQ youth. They are 24 hour crisis support, chat line. They have an incredible resource section. They have incredible studies that they do on an annual basis that really help direct just understanding, you know, kind of the climate of what is going on. So, that is my, that's my first, because I think it is, it's an incredible resource for everyone.

The second, that's more of a parent is Pflag. And they're lovely because they're both a national organization as well as they do have local chapters, where you can now go back to in-person meetings, which is very lovely. So, if you are a person who really enjoys that in-person connection, P flag is phenomenal for that.

And then my third, which is actually one that I like more for, you know, a young person is a website called It Gets Better. And it is a lovely, lovely collection of essentially people who are telling their stories of how it gets better. And, and I mean, some of these stories are just like rip your heart out stories, but it's beautiful. What's so lovely is that we all know how powerful stories are, right? And how powerful it is to be able to see yourself in someone else's story or someone else's, you know, just in someone else. So, I love being able to send kids there to be like, just check out, just read some of the, you know, people's stories that are on there because you just will, you know, not feel alone, not feel as alone.

Tina: Storytelling drives connection, right?

Heather: Absolutely.

Serena: So, we will make sure we share all of those resources in the show notes. So, yeah, people can find them. And clearly, you've learned a lot along your journey as a parent. And you're still learning like we all are. But I wonder what is something that you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning of your journey?

Heather: Oh, my goodness. So many things. Oh, my gosh, I mean, this is going to sound so funny. I wish I would have known that it was all going to be okay. Mm-hmm. I wish I would have been able to be like, okay, this is totally going to have a, this is going to be really, really hard. And you're going to shift and your entire family is going to shift and you're going to learn so much and it's going to be awesome. Right. And I guess it only gets to that because, you know, we have to go through what we go through to get to that part. But I wish I would have known right away that there were all of these resources available to me that I could have just gone online that first day and found Trevor Project or known about Pflag or known all of the research behind, and the truth behind the fact that my kid is not going to go to hell. Right. So there were lots of layers there, but those were really big things that were kind of my, it took months of research and phone calls and tears and everything, right, to get to that.

Tina: So don't you feel like it's why we do what we do?

Heather: Oh my gosh. It's true.

Tina: I mean, you almost sounded like it was a silly thing you were going to say and I just feel like that is at the heart of why I do what I do because I don't want anyone to feel alone and I want everyone to understand that it's going to be okay.

Heather: Right.

Tina: You know, you're going to be okay. Whatever the outcome, right, that we are going to support one another and, you know, connection is the best way to do that. So, you know, and this transitions really nicely into something I've learned as a parent of a kid who struggled, right, is that even though we are deep down in it and name all the things that we do that we just we’re in it, right? It's possible for us to be okay as parents. We've watched it happen with the parents we've supported and I'm curious because it's such an important, strong message for parents who are listening out there, family members who are listening out there. What are the ways that you personally stay well?

Heather: I love this question so much and I love that you brought this up because it is so important. So vitally important because if we are not okay, we cannot support anyone, right? And I think one of the biggest things we were talking about this before we start the recording is laughing, laughter is a huge and I mean, it's, you know, admittedly for me, it's equal parts coping mechanism and the way that I stay well, but just finding the humor and sometimes creating the humor is a big, big piece of me just being able to stay connected and stay grounded and learning, that was a big thing for me is learning how to stay grounded. What do I need to do? So I would say that is my, you know, my piece to everyone listening is find what helps you stay grounded and stay connected to yourself. So is that, you know, for me it is, I have a therapist. I love my therapist. I, you know, I love to do yoga. That's a non-negotiable. I love, you know, I do a ton of breathing and meditation. Like those are things that work for me in the moment when I need to ground. And then just doing things that are outside of what I do is separate from my kids, right? Because we often will find things that are like, well, we like to do this, this or this, because it's connected to our kids, but what is it that really we love for ourselves, right? That help us feel like, I'm like, yeah, this is me. Like this is, just makes me feel good. It makes me feel energized. It's my cup is full. Now I can go, you know, be a mom and be a good coach and be a good wife and be a good friend and all these things.

Serena: Yeah. So Heather, before we bring the episode to a close today, I wonder is there anything we haven't asked you that you want to make sure to put out there to the world?

Heather: I don't think so. This was really, really beautiful and wonderful. Thank you so much. I think that, you know, my thing, I know not all of your listeners are parents or maybe even know somebody who is LGBTQIA and just, I would say kind of raising that awareness, being aware of, you know, maybe challenging yourself to just learn one new thing, learn how you can be an ally would be.

Serena: Yeah, that's great. And people can listen to your podcast or go to your website and learn some of those things, which is lovely.

Heather: Yeah, absolutely.

Serena: So thank you, Heather, for joining us today and sharing your well-earned wisdom with our listeners. We truly appreciate everything you're doing to support all the parents and families out there.

Heather: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me and thank you for doing what you are doing because likewise, it is so extraordinary and so helpful.

Serena: And so podcast friends, we are as always grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. We know you have a million choices out there and we just really appreciate that you chose to spend some time with us today. So if you get a moment, help us out by visiting Apple Podcast, leave a review, subscribe and share our podcast with others. You'll find more content on our website., connect with us on the socials, call us and leave us a voicemail message and find the number in our notes, share your story, tell us what you think of the podcast, share your ideas or just call to say hi.

Tina: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Serena: Thanks for listening.

Tina: Bye.