The Protective Effect of Family Acceptance for Gay Teens

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While the acceptance of gay, lesbian and bisexual teens continues to grow — albeit gradually — study after study consistently shows that many of these adolescents still experience considerable rejection from the very source they crave acceptance most: their families.

Now a study reveals for the first time the impact that a supportive family can have on the physical and mental health of gay, lesbian and bisexual children. Researchers led by Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project, a research, education and policy initiative designed to better understand the role that sexual orientation has on family dynamics, found that teens from families who supported their sexual orientation were less likely to abuse drugs, experience depression or attempt suicide than those in less accepting families. The teens in the more supportive environments also self-reported higher levels of self-esteem and self-worth. (More on Cyberbullying? Homophobia? Tyler Clementi’s Death Highlights Online Lawlessness)

That acceptance from their families can have a positive effect on teens isn’t surprising, but what sets the new study apart is the fact that Ryan and her colleagues were able to define specific behaviors by parents and family that were perceived as being either accepting or rejecting of teens’ sexual orientation, and to connect these behaviors to mental and health outcomes in kids.

Ryan points out, for example, that parents who tried to show support by attempting to change their children’s sexual preferences — in order to help their children become more accepted in school and society — were instead perceived as rejecting their child’s individuality and sexual expression. “What we showed was that by trying to prevent a child from learning about their sexual identity or from being part of support groups, or by telling them they are ashamed of them or not talking about their sexual identity, these kinds of reactions are rejecting behaviors that are all linked to negative health and mental health outcomes in children when they become adults,” says Ryan. (More on ‘It Gets Better’: Wisdom From Grown-Up Gays and Lesbians to Bullied Kids)

Based on in depth interviews with families and children who were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, the researchers collected a list of 55 positive behaviors and a similar number of negative behaviors that volunteers were then asked to rate based on the frequency with which they experienced them.

Positive behaviors included, for example, anything from openly discussing the child’s sexual orientation to participating as a family in gay, lesbian or bisexual events, while negative behaviors included not discussing the child’s sexual identity at all, or keeping it secret from family and friends. (More on Florida’s Gay Adoption Ban Crumbles: The Dad Behind the Case Celebrates)

When Ryan’s team compared the responses of those in supportive versus less accepting families, they found that teens in the more nurturing families had nearly half the rate of suicide attempts during a designated six-month study period as those in less supportive households. These youngsters also scored lower on a scale designed to assess depression, and were less likely to report substance abuse in the five years prior to the study.

The findings, published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, says Ryan, “are very exciting because they empower ethnically and religiously diverse families and those that are socially conservative in ways that help them to understand how they can help their children and balance their deeply held values and beliefs with the love they have for their child.” (More on A Glimmer of Hope in a Bad-News Survey About Bullying)

The Family Acceptance Project is conducting research to define behaviors that families can use to become more supportive and nurturing of gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents, and much of that education, says Ryan, involves building new skills in communicating and showing empathy for their children in ways that are not punitive or hurtful, but respectful of their sexual choices.

That’s especially important since other research suggests that their sexual orientation can lead to more severe sanctions for gay, lesbian and bisexual teens, both at school and in the criminal justice system. A new study, published Monday by Pediatrics, found that even after controlling for the fact that gay and lesbian youth may be more likely to be involved in criminal activity out of self-defense or rebellion, they were still punished more severely than heterosexual teens for the same transgressions. The data highlight the importance of ensuring that adolescents of all sexual orientations feel supported and respected, especially at home. “Even for parents who are really struggling with accepting their child’s sexual orientation, there are ways to show their children that they love them, and to give them some hope that there will be a time when the family will be able to support them more proactively,” says Ryan.

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