The powerful impacts of accepting versus rejecting parent behavior on their LGBTQ+ children’s health & well-being
by Doug Aupperle, licensed psychologist
It’s probably no surprise to anyone that parents have a profound impact on how their children develop, grow, and function in the world. However, research on the LGBTQ+ population has traditionally been scarce, and research related to the youngest members of that population and their families has been even more so. The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) of San Francisco State University began to shed some light on that, though, with some groundbreaking research over a decade ago. Their findings show just how powerfully parent and caregiver responses to their LGBTQ+ children really do impact their children’s mental and physical health and well-being now and into adulthood.
The researchers have conducted interviews with hundreds of families over the years and identified more than 100 types behaviors exhibited in response to their LGBTQ+ children’s identities. They found that about half of these behaviors could be categorized as accepting and the other half as rejecting. Then they evaluated the effects of these behaviors to see how they impact their LGBTQ+ children, and what they found was striking.
The study found that often the parents who were engaging in responses categorized as rejecting were actually motivated by care and concern for their children. These parents often reported being afraid for their LGBTQ+ child’s safety and concerned that their child’s identity would result in a more difficult life. In other cases, how closely the parents’ identities were tied to their children’s drove parental rejecting behavior. Parents with high levels of such identification felt personal shame and embarrassment regarding their children’s LGBTQ+ identities. They also felt intolerable distress over how it challenged the parents’ views and beliefs.
Regardless of the parental motivations for engaging in the rejecting behaviors, though, the resulting impact on their children was still the same. Compared to LGBTQ+ children whose parents are highly accepting, the research showed that those whose parents are highly rejecting are:
- 8 times as likely to attempt suicide;
- 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression;
- 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs;
- 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and STDs.
When parental rejecting responses decrease even somewhat to more mixed/moderately rejecting levels, the risks, though still serious, also decrease. Compared to those with highly accepting parents, LGBTQ+ children experiencing mixed/moderately rejecting parental responses are:
- 2 times as likely to attempt suicide;
- 3 times as likely to report high levels of depression;
- 1.5 times as likely to use illegal drugs;
- 1.5 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and STDs.
Parent responses also profoundly shape their children’s hopes and dreams for their lives. Nearly all LGBTQ+ children in the study with extremely accepting parents believed they could live happy, productive lives as adults, while only about a third of those did whose parents were not at all accepting.
The bottom line is that for parents who want to know how to best support their LGBTQ+ children, seeking out the educational resources and community support to help them best do so may be a truly life-giving and life-saving gift to their children. For those parents who are conflicted and struggling, taking steps to be even a little less rejecting and a little more supportive can still significantly reduce the risks for their children. As the saying goes, every journey begins with a single step.
Some Family Behaviors that Increase Your LGBTQ+ Child’s Risk for Health and Mental Health Problems BEHAVIORS TO AVOID
- 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 LGBTQ+
- 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
© Caitlin Ryan, Family Acceptance Project, 2009.
Some Family Behaviors that Reduce Your LGBTQ+ Child’s Risk for Health and Mental Health Problems & Help Promote Their Well-Being BEHAVIORS THAT HELP
- Talk with your child or foster child about their LGBTQ+ identity.
- Express affection when your child tells you or when you learn that your child is LGBTQ+.
- Support your child’s LGBTQ+ identity even though you may feel uncomfortable.
- Advocate for your child when he or she is mistreated because of their LGBTQ+ identity.
- Require that other family members respect your LGBTQ+ child.
- 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 & 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.
© Caitlin Ryan, Family Acceptance Project, 2009.
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.
Ryan, C., Huebner, D., Diaz, R. M., & Sanchez, J. (2009). Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay and bisexual young adults. Pediatrics, 123(1), 346-352.