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A child putting their hands on a pregnant body with top surgery scars.
A child putting their hands on a pregnant body with top surgery scars.

How to Talk to Kids About Nontraditional Families

Written By

Adryan Corcione

Oct 25, 2022

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In mainstream cisheteronormative narratives of the nuclear family, a mother births a child and the birth father helps raise in a combined household. However, this is only one of many scenarios for how families are built. Children, especially those with monogamous cisgender straight parents, might not be exposed to representation of the many non-traditional families there are.

Contrary to what the media portrays, there are many kinds of family creation. Queer family structures and other modern families come in all different shapes and sizes. Here are some different types of families and how they are created:

Co-parenting: While co-parents could be two people who’ve been romantically and/or sexually involved, romantic and/or sexual connection isn’t implied in the definition of co-parents. Rather, co-parents can be one or more people with any other kind of connection. Co-parents can be in polyamoruous relationships, such as a triad or quad. Two best friends can also raise children together as platonic parents as a one family unit. Other family members—like aunts, uncles, or grandparents—can also serve as co-parents. Birth parents might co-parent with another partner aside from the other biological parent, such as in the instances with step parents/blended families. (To read more about co-parenting, check out this Library article.)

Using a sperm or egg donor: Two parents who cannot create a pregnancy because they don’t have all of the genetic materials between them (such as same-sex parents) may consider seeking a donor. People who are lacking access to sperm will seek a sperm donor. Those lacking access to eggs may seek an egg donor. If the parent(s) have a uterus and eggs and want to carry a pregnancy in their body, they can do so with the help of a sperm donation, which is used in insemination or other fertility treatments. (Read about queer and transgender fertility in this Library article.)

Surrogacy: If the parent(s) have sperm, but the parent(s) don’t have an egg and/or uterus, they’ll likely use a surrogate to carry a pregnancy. Surrogacy describes the process of when one or more non-birth parents work with a gestational surrogate—who carries and births a child—with the intention that the non-birth parent(s) care and raise the child as their own. In this country, most surrogacy entails using the egg/sperm of the non-birth parents or an egg or sperm donor and then placing the created embryo inside the surrogate’s uterus (instead of using the eggs of the surrogate).

Adoption: Adoption describes situations where one (such as a single parent) or more non-birth parents (such as a same-sex couple) adopt a child birthed by a birth parent. The birth parent can (and sometimes, does) maintain a presence in the child’s life, although the adopted parent or parents are the primary caregiver(s).

Single parents: A single parent can be a birth parent or a non-birth parent (like a foster parent). This family situation looks like having one parent instead of two or more.

Now that we’ve covered some different ways that queer families can be created, how can you communicate these to existing children, especially if they’ll be expecting a new sibling in the future? Check out these tips from FOLX Health.

Two people speaking to a child.

Talking to children of all ages

While talking to young children will look different than talking to teenagers, there are some pointers to consider when talking to any child about nontraditional family structures. Below includes some practical advice, regardless of a child’s age, to introduce concepts.

  • Express gratitude and excitement for existing children. This helps set a tone for bringing a new child into the family.
  • Be honest and open. Don’t lie or warp the truth, even if the children are young.
  • Be willing to answer questions genuinely whenever they come up.
  • Understand that family building is an ongoing and long-term conversation, not a one-off discussion. Children may end up having more questions later, especially if they’re in school and around other kids with similar curiosities.

Talking to a toddler and grammar school child (11 years and under)

With younger children, it’s important to keep things simple. There isn’t a need to go in depth into topics. Introducing ideas can be helpful because they can be expanded upon as kids grow older.

  • Don’t avoid the truth. Kids ask because they want to know. Respect their curiosity. Start small with answering the question at hand. It can be easy to go overboard and attempt to explain everything all at once.
  • Don’t wait for questions. Bring up topics into all conversations to normalize them.
  • Explain that families look different (i.e. two dads, two moms/lesbian parents, multi-parent, grandparents, single parent households).
  • Encourage them to ask questions. This can help assure your children that it’s okay to ask questions they may find uncomfortable or weird.
  • It’s ok to take a pause and say you want to think about your answer and get back to them—but definitely get back to them.
  • Tap into additional resources, such as children’s books like Cory Silveberg’s What Makes a Baby. Check out Family Equality for more recommendations.

Talking to a pre-teen and teen (12 years and up)

In this stage of child development, pre-teens and teens want to be “normal” and have a family life similar to their peers, especially if they live in areas without strong queer precense. To be clear, no one kind of family is “normal”! However, your child may have uncomfortable feelings of disappointment, shame, etc. They may be ostracized and singled out from their peers for being “different.” However, the feelings can pass. These feelings don't have to be permanent.

  • Affirm, respect, and validate your child’s feelings, even if the feelings are uncomfortable (shame, guilt, disappointment, frustration, sadness, grief, resentment, anger, etc.). It’s important for children of all ages to know it’s okay to have uncomfortable feelings.
  • Offer to help them navigate difficult conversations with their friends and peers. Ask about how their classmates respond to them about their families.
  • Introduce tools to help your children navigate uncomfortable feelings. Think screaming into a pillow, breathing techniques, and other therapeutic coping strategies.
  • Incorporate nontraditional families into your sex education conversations. Too often, sex ed is cisheternormative. Pre-teens and teens are forming their own identities and might have questions about their own gender and sexuality.
  • There are some terrific teen puberty/sex books out now that do a really good job discussing sexuality, gender, sex, etc. and can offer tools for these discussions, too. Some include Cory Silverberg’s two books, Sex is Funny Word and You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty, and Other Things. Check out the New York Times for more recommendations.
  • Depending on where people live, it might be common for your children to know LGBTQ kids or other kids who have LGBTQ families. However, if you live in an area without a strong LGBTQ+ community presence, you can connect them to online resources like gender spectrum, Colage, local PFLAG groups, National Network of LGBTQ Family Groups. (If you’re a FOLX member or FOLX virtual healthcare patient looking for more resources, email our Member Support team at support@folxhealth.com and they may have recommendations.)

How to talk to other adults in the presence of your kids

When you have a nontraditional family, even other adults can have little understanding of how children come into your family. However, if other adults are respectful and curious, you might be open to a conversation with them.

First and foremost, understand that it’s up to you how much you want to share and disclose. Especially if you live in an area with not as strong of an LGBTQ+ community presence, it can be difficult being one of the few visible queer parents. You can decide  how much you’re willing to share with other adults and the larger public. If you’re open to sharing your experiences with queer family building, know how much you’re willing to share before the conversation begins with another adult. (How much you’re willing to share can vary based on how well you know an adult, whether they’re a parent of your child’s friend or a total stranger.) 

Approach questions with curiosity, especially when children are around. This is an excellent opportunity for you to model how to answer questions in front of children. Practice confidence when sharing what you’re comfortable disclosing (i.e. “our daughter has two moms”). Don’t be afraid to speak up when inappropriate questions arise rather than avoid the conflict. It’ll empower your children to respond when they are asked inappropriate questions.

FOLX is now offering our own Fertility and Family Building Course starting November 9th! Sign up here to enroll. If you’d like to speak directly with a FOLX clinician about fertility and family-building options, book a virtual healthcare visit or drop us a line at support@folxhealth.com with any other questions.

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