For sexual and gender minority teens and youth, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are alarmingly high. What’s often left out of the conversation, experts say, is the potential for parents and guardians to set the stage for better outcomes.
The home environment has become especially important since the onset of COVID-19, according to research by the Trevor Project, the world’s largest crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ young people.
In their 2021 survey of more than 34,700 teens and young adults from across the United States, 42 percent of teens and young adults ages 13 to 24 who identified with a sexual orientation other than straight/heterosexual or a gender identity other than cisgender said that they had considered suicide in the past year.
Sixty-two percent reported symptoms of depression, and 72 percent reported symptoms of anxiety. And 80 percent reported that COVID-19 had made their living situation more stressful; only 1 in 3 reported that their home was LGBTQ-affirming.
If your kid has just come out, these statistics may sound alarming, but the hopeful news for sexual and gender minority kids, as well as for their parents and loved ones, is that having support can really help, says Myeshia Price, PhD, a senior research scientist for the Trevor Project.
In fact, when LGBTQ youth have at least one accepting adult in their life, their risk of suicide decreases by 40 percent, according to data collected by the Trevor Project and published in 2019. Other research has shown that family support and parental acceptance of one’s sexual orientation is also associated with lower rates of depressive symptoms for gay and lesbian individuals. And still other research suggests that strong parental support for trans youth when it comes to their gender identity and expression more than doubles the likelihood that those kids will report having high self-esteem, being satisfied with their life, and having good physical and mental health.
“It’s important as a parent to understand that the future of LGBTQ+ youth can be just as healthy and brilliant as it can be for any youth, if you’re being supportive and helping them to be the person they can be,” Price says.
Parents, too, may face some anxiety about a child coming out — not the least of which may be tied to concerns about how to provide the support their kids need. Small routine actions can build an environment of safety and security, no matter how a child identifies, says Joshua A. Goodman, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, whose research focuses on family support for sexual and gender minority youth.
“Queer kids need the same things that all youth need,” Goodman says. “A high school student may find it hard to navigate a first breakup, for instance, and they might cry to their parents about it — that would be normal and expected. But it will be more challenging if the child feels they can’t bring it to their parents because they’re in a same-sex relationship.”
Here are some steps parents and guardians (and other loved ones) of LGBTQ+ children, teenagers, and young adults can take to support them.
1. Pay Attention to the Language You Use When Talking About LGBTQ+ Communities
The tone of the environment where a child grows up is typically established long before a youth comes out to their parents — and it may determine whether they open up to their parents about their identity, Goodman says. Children readily notice things like how parents respond to other LGBTQ+ individuals in their lives or in the media, he says.
Openly stating age-appropriate support for queer identities can also go a long way toward helping youth feel accepted, even before they come out. For example, parents can explain that it’s normal that “some people like boys, some people like girls, some like nonbinary people, and some like more than one gender,” Goodman says. And they can make it clear to kids that “whatever combination of people you love, I will love you,” he says.
This is also true of gender identity, according to Kacie Kidd, MD, a physician and researcher at the West Virginia University School of Medicine who focuses on improving health outcomes for gender-diverse youth. Parents can help their kids feel more comfortable exploring their gender identity by showing that it’s okay to have an open mind and to question society’s assumptions about gender. For example, if a child says that a certain toy is “for boys” or “for girls,” you can gently correct them by saying that those toys are for anyone who is interested in them, Dr. Kidd says.
“Make room for young people to explore these facets of their identity,” says Kidd.
2. Consider That Your Child Might Identify as LGBTQ+
Many parents who are accepting and supportive of LGBTQ+ identities may still feel shock or disbelief if their own child comes out. Every parent, Goodman says, should consider the possibility that their child could be part of the LGBTQ+ community from an early age.
“In Generation Z, around 15 percent of youth identify as part of an LGBTQ community,” Goodman says. (Those figures come from a 2021 Gallup poll.) “If a parent has thought through the fact that their child might identify as LGBTQ+ ahead of time, it makes it easier to adjust,” he explains. If a parent or guardian knows that it’s a possibility, they may be better able to focus on supporting their child during that time when they come out — rather than focusing on their own reaction.
3. Support Your Kid Where They’re at, Even if It Changes
It’s also possible that a child may “come out” as LGBTQ+ and change labels more than once, Price says. That is a normal part of human development as young people explore their own identity — it isn’t a sign that their orientation or gender should be dismissed.
“It’s important to recognize that wherever your child is, that is where they are at the moment,” Price says. “It’s not important whether they change. It’s important that you support them then and there. That support is more important than whatever the identity is.”
4. Listen With Empathy
Parents and guardians of queer youth may feel as though they aren’t qualified to have conversations about sexual identity and gender identity, particularly if they themselves are heterosexual or cisgender, Goodman says. But parent can rest assured that being supportive doesn’t require any special knowledge or training — only a willingness to listen with empathy, he says.
Do this by paying attention to what your child has to say, validating their experience and emotions as real and important (rather than dismissing or downplaying them), and avoiding judgmental language (like suggesting that a child is too young to know what they are talking about or is choosing to misbehave).
“You don’t need to fully understand what a child is experiencing in order to let them know that you believe them and recognize that their emotions are real,” Goodman says. “What’s important is to try to recognize the emotion that your child has.”
5. Give Your Kid Space to Express Themselves
Allow kids and teens to dress and express themselves as they desire, Goodman says. And respect their wishes regarding terminology, names, and pronouns. Particularly for transgender and nonbinary youth, having all members of the household use their chosen name and pronouns cuts the risk of suicide by half, according to the aforementioned 2021 survey from the Trevor Project.
6. Make Time and Space to Recognize What You’re Feeling, Too
When a child comes out to their family, the emphasis is typically on the young person’s feelings and experience. Yet it’s common, Kidd says, for parents to feel a rush of conflicting emotions as well. Parents may feel an unexpected sense of loss for the future that they imagined their child would have, or they may fear for their child’s well-being in the face of potential discrimination. The parents themselves may also face stigmatization and discrimination as a result of their child’s identity, Goodman says, which may cause the parent to feel further stress.
Whatever feelings may arise when a young person comes out, Goodman says, it’s important for the adults in their life to process those feelings in a way that does not blame or put the responsibility for those feelings on the youth by, for example, expressing disappointment about a potential lack of grandchildren. That could mean writing in a journal or seeing a mental health professional to help yourself process those difficult emotions.
“However the parent is feeling, that’s a real feeling, and it makes sense that they should recognize their feelings and navigate their feelings,” Goodman says. “The key is to make sure that it doesn’t negatively impact the child.”
7. Seek Support
Parents, guardians, and other people supporting LGBTQ+ youth should also reach out to their own networks for support, Goodman says. There is a good chance, he says, that they already know other parents in similar situations. But if caregivers find themselves in a non-affirming environment, numerous online and in-person resources are available to help them find communities of support.
In addition to educational resources such as the Trevor Project’s Guide to Being an Ally, parents may seek out organizations with formal youth support groups such as PFLAG, a national organization for the families and allies of LGBTQ+ individuals that has nearly 400 affiliated chapters across the United States.
For medical and mental health concerns, or for information about transitioning, Goodman recommends reputable sources such as the American Psychological Association or the American Medical Association — or your family doctor. Look for organizations that are supported by and that include advocates of the LGBTQ+ community, to make sure you’re getting affirming advice, Goodman notes.
Both peer support and formal mental health care are important resources for parents looking to navigate their feelings about their child’s identity, Kidd says.
8. Ask Your Kid What They Need
It’s not a parent’s job to read their kid’s mind. Ask them how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, and what would make them feel supported, Price says. Asking about individual needs is a clear way to show acceptance, not only of a child’s identity but also their whole person.
“Maybe they’re fine. Maybe they don’t want a grand parade or a photoshoot,” Price says. “Or maybe they do. It’s important to start with that — asking.”
This content was originally published here.