Families impact the health of LGBT youth

Research shows that family acceptance protects children who are gay against suicide, substance abuse and other high-risk behaviors.

Young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) are too often targets of homophobic harassment that puts them at risk for substance abuse, suicide and other risk behaviors. As young people begin to understand their own identities and the impacts of other’s views, families often struggle with understanding how to support and protect their gay and lesbian children. Now, research out of San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project shows that reactions of parents and other caregivers have a dramatic impact on the health and well-being of their LGBT children.

Most parents and caregivers want the best for their children and foster children and don’t want to intentionally harm them. Families who participated in the Family Acceptance Project research were shocked to learn that the reactions and behaviors they thought would protect their LGBT children instead put them at very high risk for serious health risks. Examples of behaviors that do harm to rather than protect LGBT children include:

  • Trying to change your child’s identity.
  • Attempting to keep your child away from their gay friends, events and resources.
  • Excluding your child from family and family activities.
  • Hitting, slapping or physically hurting your child because of their LGBT identity.
  • Verbal harassment or name-calling.
  • Blaming your child when they experience harassment or discrimination because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
  • Telling your child that God will punish them because they are gay.
  • Telling your child that you are ashamed of them or how they look or act.
  • Pressuring your child to be more (or less) masculine or feminine.
  • Telling your child that they are shaming the family because they are gay.
  • Making your child keep their LGBT identity a secret and not letting them talk about it.

The Family Acceptance Project also illuminates ways that families can help reduce LGBT children’s risk for health and mental health complications as they promote the well-being of their teens. Examples of these behaviors include:

  • Talking with your child about their LGBT identity.
  • Supporting your child’s identity even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Advocating for your child when they are harassed or mistreated.
  • Requiring that other family members respect your LGBT child.
  • Taking your child to LGBT events and connecting them with supportive organizations.
  • Talking with clergy and helping your faith community support and accept your child.
  • Helping your child feel hopeful and positive about the future by connecting them with adult LGBT role models.
  • Welcoming your child’s friends and partners to your home.
  • Supporting your child’s gender expression.
  • Believing your child can have a happy future as an LGBT adult.
  • Telling your child often that you love them.

As media reports of suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth become increasingly common, many families and communities are grappling with the urgent need to identify interventions that can address this issue.  The Family Acceptance Project was recently designated a “best practice” as part of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The effort includes culturally specific booklets in English, Spanish and Chinese called Supportive Families, Healthy Children that help families understand how specific reactions to their children’s LGBT identity both contribute to and protect against risk for suicide and other health problems.

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