Parents and caregivers of LGBTQ youth have a significant opportunity to positively influence their child’s well-being and future. LGBTQ youth whose parents and caregivers support them have better overall physical and mental health, higher self-esteem, and are less likely to use illicit drugs. LGBTQ youth who are accepted by their families are much more likely to believe they will have a good life and will become a happy, productive adult. The information discussed in this blog entry can also be useful for other trusted, caring adults in the LGBTQ youth’s life.
Family support plays a particularly crucial role in affecting the likelihood of suicide. Youth who face rejection after coming out to their families are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than youth who are supported by their families. For LGBTQ people aged 10–24, suicide is one of the leading causes of death (NAMI). LGBTQ youth who face family rejection are nearly 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression, more than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, and more than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and STDs than someone who has been accepted by their family after revealing their sexual orientation (Ryan, 2009).
Family conflict and alienation due to a child’s LGBTQ identity contributes to isolation and puts them at risk for abuse and homelessness. According to a survey of service providers who work with LGBTQ youth who are homeless conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law in 2012, 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ (Durso & Gates). It’s estimated that LGBTQ youth represent about 7 percent of the population, which puts that 40 percent figure into a heartbreaking context. Nearly seven in 10 (68%) respondents indicated that family rejection was a major factor contributing to LGBT youth homelessness, making it the most cited factor, and more than half (54%) of respondents indicated that abuse in their family was another important factor contributing to LGBTQ homelessness (Durso & Gates, 2012).
The importance of parental/caregiver involvement and support in the lives of LGBTQ youth cannot be overstated. Having a parent/caregiver available throughout youth to provide a place to get comfort when they feel threatened or afraid (a Safe Haven), and a solid, reliable foundation as they explore the world and sort life out by themselves (a Secure Base), fosters a sense of security and ongoing connection. Bowlby, the founder of Attachment Theory, defined attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings,” (1969, p. 194). Parental/Caregiver behaviors that promote a secure attachment include being attuned (in harmony with your child), available, and responsive (sensitive to the needs of your child). The attachment between parent/caregiver and child impacts all relationships beyond those with the parents and caregiver, and helps determines an individual’s sense of self-worth (Katz-Wise et al., 2016).
The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) researchers studied families who openly accept their children’s gay or transgender identity. According to Ryan (2009), these researchers identified the following parental behaviors that support well-being in LGBTQ children:
- Express affection when your child tells you or when you learn about your child’s LGBTQ identity
- Talk with your child or foster child about their LGBTQ identify
- Support your child’s LGBTQ identify even though you may feel uncomfortable
- Advocate for your child when he or she is mistreated because of their LGBTQ identify
- Require that other family members respect your LGBTQ child
- Stand up for their LGBTQ child when their child is mistreated or harassed by others
- Bring your child to LGBTQ organizations or events
- Connect your child with an LGBTQ adult role model to show them options for the future
- Work to make your congregation supportive of LGBTQ members, or find a supportive faith community that welcomes your family and LGBTQ child
- Welcome your child’s LGBTQ friends and partner to your home and to family events and activities
- Support your child’s gender expression
- Believe your child can have a happy future as an LGBTQ adult
Parental behaviors to avoid that increase an LGBTQ child’s risk for heath and mental health problems include (Ryan, 2009):
- Hitting, slapping or physically hurting your child because of their LGBTQ identity
- Verbal harassment or name-calling because of your child’s LGBTQ identity
- Excluding LGBTQ youth from family events and family activities
- Blocking access to LGBTQ friends, events, and resources
- Blaming your child when they are discriminated against because of their LGBTQ identity
- Pressuring your child to be more (or less) masculine or feminine
- Telling your child that God will punish them because they are gay
- Telling your child that you are ashamed of them or that how they look or act will shame the family
- Making your child keep their LGBTQ identity a secret in the family and not letting them talk about their identity with others
I surveyed a number of members of the LGBTQ community in the area, most of whom were in their early twenties, regarding their most helpful and unhelpful experiences with their parents after coming out to them. They were also asked what they wished their parents knew when they came out. Many of their responses paralleled those listed by Ryan in the Family Acceptance Project. In addition, they identified the following helpful parental behaviors:
- Asking about their sexuality in a non-judgmental manner
- Being patient and supportive
- Expressing interest, listening, validating, and being empathetic
- Being allowed to talk about questions related to their sexuality without judgment before coming out
- Being open to discussing their attractions
Unhelpful parental behaviors identified included:
- Arguing about religious beliefs
- Being told they could change their attraction
- Not allowing them to be themselves
- Being unable to commit to loving them if they decided to be in a relationship
This group also identified the following as what they wished their parents knew when they came out:
- They are the same person they were before they came out
- As they figure out their sexuality, know their child’s mind may change as they purge internalized homophobia
- Normal developmental changes are more challenging
- They need support in coping with prejudice, harassment, and microaggressions
- Be aware of factors that make your child feel singled out as a sexual minority
- Recognize it takes courage for their child to come out to them
- Questions without preconceived answer fosters the most autonomy in your child
- Using their child’s preferred pronouns makes them feel respected and validated
Agreeing with your children is not a prerequisite to loving and supporting them, and due to the substantial impact parental support has on an LBGTQ youth’s well-being and future, I encourage parents and caregivers who are having difficulty supporting their LGBTQ children to get support for themselves. PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) provides resources for families and has local support groups. If you think you, your LGBTQ child, or your family would benefit from professional help, there are qualified, LGBTQ affirming mental health professionals who can help you.
I have one final quote from one of the members of the LGBTQ community surveyed that I would like you to consider,
“When kids come out, it is an invitation to become part of their life – a core part of who they are – it is up to the family to decide if they want to accept the invitation or close the door.”
Bowlby J. Attachment and Loss: Volume I. Attachment. 2. New York, NY: Basic Books; 1969.
Durso, L.E., & Gates, G.J. (2012). Serving Our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Service Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth who are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless. Los Angeles: The Williams Institute with True Colors Fund and The Palette Fund.
Katz-Wise, Sabra L., et al. (2016). LGBT Youth and Family Acceptance. Advances in Pediatrics, 63(6), 1011-1025. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5127283/.
NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. LGBTQ. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5127283/.
Ryan, C. (2009). Helping Families Support Their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Children. Washington, DC: National Center for Cultural Competence, Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development.
Family Acceptance ProjectTM
The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) provides educational materials and resources for families with LGBT children and youth and new research on helping families support their LGBT children. http://familyproject.sfsu.edu
Gender Spectrum Education and Training
Gender Spectrum Education and Training provides information and support for parents and families and has an annual conference for families with gender-variant and transgender children. It also provides training on gender identity and expression for schools and providers to help gender non-conforming and transgender children and youth. http://www.genderspectrum.org
PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is a national organization with state and local chapters that provide education, information, and support for parents and families with LGBT family members. http:/www.pflag.org