As gay- and lesbian-headed families become more common, psychologists may see increasing numbers of them in their practices. Most problems such families bring to therapy are typical of any family, says Jane Ariel, PhD, a Wright Institute psychology professor and clinician with many lesbian and gay clients.

"How to keep kids under control, how to manage the load of working and being a parent, how to find time for your partner are common issues," says Ariel.

But there are a few challenges lesbian and gay parents may bring to the session that practitioners might be unfamiliar with, including:

  • Worry about fitness to parent. Some lesbian parents, for example, come to a therapist concerned that a lack of a male role model might harm their son. Gay dads might similarly worry that their children might suffer from lack of female role models. These concerns might stem from internalized homophobia that therapists can help their clients address, Ariel notes. In such cases, she suggests therapists share with their clients research that shows children of lesbian or gay parents are just as mentally healthy as kids with heterosexual parents (see main story).

  • Concern about homophobia. Many parents worry that their children will be taunted or even assaulted by their peers as a result of their unusual family structure, says Judith E. Snow, a Michigan-based therapist. Such teasing is likely to happen, but parents can help their kids prepare to respond constructively by role-playing and by modeling appropriate responses in their day-to-day lives, she says. For example, parents who stand up for themselves without escalating a situation help their children learn to do the same, says Snow.

  • Legal problems. Same-sex parents have to work through a variety of questions when deciding to start a family-for example, determining which mother will carry the child, and who the sperm donor will be. Custody and adoption arrangements also require thoughtful deliberation on the part of gay and lesbian would-be parents. Depending on the state, it may be impossible to get legal recognition for both parents. Therapists can help clients manage their frustration and cope with any power imbalance that could happen if only one person is considered a parent on paper, says Ariel.

  • Negotiating roles and chores. Because there isn't a cultural script for lesbian and gay families, these families may especially benefit from open discussions about dividing up responsibility for child-rearing, finances and other household chores, notes Ariel. Therapists who are completely open to unusual family configurations will fare best when facilitating such discussions, she says.

"It's crucial for these couples to feel totally accepted by a therapist," says Ariel. "Any subtle homophobia will show through."

-S. Dingfelder