It's Your Duty to Support Your LGBTQ+ Child's Mental Health, Here's How
Only one in three queer youth say their home is a supportive and safe space for them to be their true selves. Let's do better for our kids; experts share how.
"I dreaded going home after school. I thought about running away and even looked for places that I could escape to," says Ananya*, a 19-year-old queer college student.
Ananya experienced anxiety for years knowing she couldn't come out to her family because they would not accept her. Ananya says that going away to college has been freeing, but she still can't be herself when she is around family. "I have to be on guard all the time. It's terrifying to not be able to be who you are with your own family."
Ananya is not alone.
The impact on LGBTQ+ youth living in unsupportive homes and hostile communities is profound. These children and teens experience harassment, rejection, discrimination, and stigma, putting them at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and homelessness.
According to The Trevor Project's 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health-34,759 LGBTQ+ youth ages 13-24 participated-only one in three reported their homes were supportive. Queer youth without affirming homes reported higher rates of attempted suicide and 75 percent reported experiencing discrimination due to their gender identity or sexual orientation.
The pandemic has also had a detrimental impact. Many LGBTQ+ youth have had to quarantine in unsupportive homes and more than 80 percent reported a more stressful living situation due to COVID-19.
"Supporting LGBTQ youth in their identities is essential to their mental health and wellness, and that must start at home," says Myeshia Price, Ph.D., senior research scientist at The Trevor Project. "It's okay if you are not an expert on LGBTQ identities just yet. Start by listening without judgment, practicing empathy, and educating yourself."
Research shows that queer youth with affirming communities experience better mental health outcomes. In a study published in the Journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics, University of Washington researchers found that queer youth who are accepted did not experience elevated levels of depression.
Reese*, a 17-year-old high school senior in New York City, says that after coming out a year ago, her family's support made a profound difference in her well-being, but Reese said many of her friends haven't had the same experience.
Reese says that the best way for caregivers to be supportive is verbal affirmations of their child's identity, being open to things changing, and loving their children for who they are. "Love and support should not be conditional on if your children fit a certain image or expectation that you had of them," she says.
Reese also cautions that for many queer youth, even those with supportive communities, their mental health is at an increased risk due to recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation ricocheting throughout different state legislatures across the country.
The Human Rights Campaign reports more than 250 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in 2021. 94 percent of LGBTQ+ youth in The Trevor Project's survey reported that recent politics has negatively impacted their mental health.
Arkansas passed a bill-which many medical experts called an alarming government overreach-banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth under 18, even if they have parental consent. The ability to participate in sports-which can help LGBTQ+ youth feel connected to their school community and positively impact their mental and physical health-is also being taken away in some states. Eight states including Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, passed legislation prohibiting transgender girls and women from being on sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity.
Sarah Gundle, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City, says that many external factors, including the recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, send a dangerous message to queer youth and that family support is crucial. "Queer youth often experience a lot of harassment and stigma. Their homes need to be a safe, affirming space," says Dr. Gundle. "Our sense of self is deeply intertwined in how our caregivers see us. If they reject who we are, it has a profoundly negative impact."
Dr. Gundle recommends that caregivers prioritize their child's needs and be engaged. "This is a time when your child may need you the most. Listen to what they are sharing and help create a supportive network." Joining queer youth support groups, talking with a counselor, and making sure their school is a comfortable space are some of the ways parents can ensure their child has support at home and in the community. Dr. Gundle also suggests that parents connect with other LGBTQ+ caregivers.
Melissa Deane, a 39-year-old mother of five and nurse in Blackstone, Virginia, who has fostered and adopted LGBTQ+ youth, says that if parents haven't been supportive, it's not too late to change and do better. "Sometimes parents think that their child may be too young to be thinking about how they identify or that this came out of nowhere, but it's important to keep an open mind and remember that their child may have been thinking about this for a long time."
When Deane's 13-year old daughter joined their family, she had previously experienced rejection and harassment over her gender identity, but after being in a supportive space, Deane saw a remarkable shift. "My daughter's anxiety decreased, her suicidal ideation subsided, she is more expressive, making friends, and is closer with her siblings. If my daughter can make this progress in our home, I hope unsupportive caregivers will consider the harm they may be causing and place their children's well-being first by accepting their LGBTQ identity."
Using the correct pronouns and preferred names is another way to be affirming. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that using someone's chosen name reduces the risk of suicidal ideation and depression in queer youth. "Even if parents are still trying to understand or are unsure of what things mean, using correct pronouns shows your child that you are trying," says Deane.
It can also be a way for allies to show support. Josh Meredith, chief of staff at Born This Way Foundation, says when allies introduce themselves using their pronouns this can help queer youth feel safer in sharing how they identify. "This is an incredibly simple, free, and impactful act of kindness that an ally can start implementing right away. Even if you are not transgender or nonbinary, the act of sharing your pronouns tells those young people, you matter, your identity is valued, and I'm here to support you."
Supportive spaces also need to be more than just "tolerant"-they need to be affirming. Carly*, an 18-year-old high school senior in Colorado, says that although their family is not overtly homophobic/transphobic, home is not an affirming space where Carly can be really open about their gender identity (Carly has shared some of how they identify with their parents). "It can be super isolating not to be able to talk openly with my parents about being queer," says Carly.
Carly also cautions that LGBTQ+ youth who don't receive support at home may look for it in other ways. "Queer kids who are isolated at home may end up seeking acceptance in other unhealthy or even dangerous places-and can be preyed on by other people." Studies show that substance abuse is two to four times higher among LGBTQ+ youth than their straight, cisgender peers.
But despite ongoing challenges, many queer teens still feel hopeful that things will change and get better. Carly describes having a supportive group of friends and says there are more resources now for LGBTQ+ youth than ever before.
LGBTQ+ virtual programs-which many organizations expanded during the pandemic-help crucial services be more accessible. These online supports include virtual LGBTQ+ summer camps, remote PRIDE events, virtual proms, different support groups, online summits, as well as art and culture events.
"Despite the challenges-and they can be daunting-I do feel hope. I see things changing," says Reese. "I want LGBTQ kids to know that even when things are really hard, they are still changing for the better-and that you matter."
LGBTQ+ youth and caregivers looking for support can contact TheTrevorProject.org, The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender National Hotline, Family Equality Council, Trans Lifeline, PLFAG, Born This Way Foundation, TextCrisesline.org, Please Stay, itgetsbetter.org and Qchatspace.org
*Last names have been withheld for privacy.