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posted: 1/25/2013 7:33 PM

How to react to news that her daughter is dating a woman?

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Q. My 20-year-old college daughter announced this week that she was seeing someone.

She said her name was (blank) and that's all I can recall.

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She has never had a relationship with a boy, or a girl for that matter, so this is a complete shock.

We love her completely and want to react with compassion and support, but I just don't know what to make of it. Is it for real or merely reaching out to someone caring at a challenging time of her life?

I feel like I've been traded to a team I never wanted to play for. I am already reacting differently to anti-gay slurs in the media and articles about the Supreme Court and gay marriage. I worry for her in a way I've never had to before.

Any insights into how to react next?

Stunned

A. A couple of points in response to yours:

• If "His name is Phil" wouldn't move you to ask whether it's for real, then please don't ask it now. It's for real until she tells you it isn't, and that's true whether your daughter's gay, bi, bi-curious, too lonely for words, fulfilled in ways that escaped your radar, or straight and dating a man named Melissa.

• That sensation of being traded to a team against your will? Surely it can't be your first time, since it seems to me that's what kids are for: tapping the shoulder of parents who think they're X, and saying, uh, no, we're Y.

Whether you've felt that before or not, the answer's the same. Give your child not what you want to give, but what she actually needs. Adapt this to each situation accordingly and when in doubt, ask.

• Reacting sympathetically yes? to current events because they involve your daughter sounds like a development worth embracing. In fact, why not get into full January-renewal mode and consider what other views you might reconsider, revise and relaunch if you suddenly had a personal stake?

While you do all this important sorting and normal adjusting, please just treat this unexpected love as you would the one you expected. A world of current and former 20-year-olds can fill you in on how that sounds: "What's she like?" "How did you meet?" "How long have you been together?" "Are you happy?" Not in one unbroken stream, of course, unless you want to make sure you never hear about new loves again.

Q. My sister is in her 20s and has never brought a boy home. I think she might be gay. I don't care, but I don't know if it's appropriate for me to ask her. She currently lives in Europe so I don't see her often, and she's a pretty private person. Can I ask point-blank, or just wait for the answer to reveal itself?

Anonymous

A. If you two were close, then you'd already know. If you're just now becoming close as adults, then you might be able to ask as a small part of this larger re-getting-to-know-you process.

But fishing for this tidbit when you're not otherwise showing interest in her life would likely just confirm for her the wisdom of moving abroad. Get to know her better in general, just for the sake of knowing her, or leave her be.

• Email Carolyn at tellmewashpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

2013 The Washington Post

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