Q. My daughter insists she's gay. She must be lying because her father and I are straight, so how could she be gay? I've told her to just use her willpower to be straight; but when I say, "Don't think about women and those things," her reply is, "That doesn't work." So what's wrong here?

A. "What's wrong here" may involve a number of issues. Parental brain function may or may not be replicated in biological offspring. And even when children do resemble one or both parents, each brain is unique. The fact that you and your husband believe yourselves to be straight has little if anything to do with your daughter's brain. If she has not been abused by a male (e.g., she is not saying she is gay in order to reduce expectations for marrying a male), her being honest enough to tell you she is attracted to other females is quite brave of her. If it's a passing fad, she may eventually change her mind. If it represents her brain's sexual orientation, she will likely not change her mind (whether or not she succumbs to pressure to live a straight lifestyle).

As for willpower, many people misunderstand its role. Willpower is believed to be located in the brain's executive center, directly behind the forehead, as is working memory. Willpower rarely helps a person stop doing a behavior, especially if it provides some type of reward. Willpower is designed to help you achieve a goal, learn a new skill, or develop a healthier replacement behavior (for one that was resulting in negative outcomes).

Are you familiar with work by Dr. Daniel Wegeman (the white-bear phenomenon)? When you say, "Don't think about the white bear," a picture of a white bear pops up in working memory and you actually think about the white bear more than you did before. Saying, "Don't think about . . ." is relatively unhelpful. The brain first makes a picture from the words and it often misses the "don't." Once something goes into working memory, the brain makes no judgment about whether it is good or bad. The brain's position is: if you put it in working memory that's what you want, and my job is to help you get it. Therefore, avoid giving negative instructions.

Having said that, I suggest you accept your daughter just as she is, keeping wide the door for open discussion and non-demeaning, non-shaming conversations. She may be gay—and it's her brain so she'll be the only one to know who she really is. And if she is gay, my belief is that there is a way for every brain on this planet to live a rewarding and satisfying life. It may not be the one you live, however; and you will need to decide whether you are going to make life harder and more difficult for her than it already is, or love her just as she is even though she is walking a different path from the one you chose.

 

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