COMMENTARY

The Importance of Family Acceptance for
LGBTQ Youth

Shauna M. Lawlis, MD

February 18, 2021

It is well established that LGBTQ individuals experience more health disparities compared with their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts. In general, LGBTQ adolescents and young adults have higher levels of depression, suicide attempts, and substance use than those of their heterosexual peers.

However, a key protective factor is family acceptance and support. By encouraging families to modify and change behaviors that are experienced by their LGBTQ children as rejecting and to engage in supportive and affirming behaviors, providers can help families to decrease risk and promote healthy outcomes for LGBTQ youth and young adults.

We all know that a supportive family can make a difference for any child, but this is especially true for LGBTQ youth and is critical during a pandemic when young people are confined with families and separated from peers and supportive adults outside the home. Several research studies show that family support can improve outcomes related to suicide, depression, homelessness, drug use, and HIV in LGBTQ young people.

Family acceptance improves health outcomes, while rejection undermines family relationships and worsens both health and other serious outcomes such as homelessness and placement in custodial care. Pediatricians can help their patients by educating parents and caregivers with LGBTQ children about the critical role of family support – both those who see themselves as accepting and those who believe that being gay or transgender is wrong and are struggling with parenting a child who identifies as LGBTQ or who is gender diverse.

The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) at San Francisco State University conducted the first research on LGBTQ youth and families, developed the first evidence-informed family support model, and has published a range of studies and evidence-based resources that demonstrate the harm caused by family rejection, validate the importance of family acceptance, and provide guidance to increase family support.

FAP's research found that parents and caregivers that engage in rejecting behaviors are typically motivated by care and concern and by trying to protect their children from harm. They believe such behaviors will help their LGBTQ children fit in, have a good life, meet cultural and religious expectations, and be respected by others.1 FAP's research identified and measured more than 50 rejecting behaviors that parents and caregivers use to respond to their LGBTQ children.

Some of these commonly expressed rejecting behaviors include ridiculing and making disparaging comments about their child and other LGBTQ people; excluding them from family activities; blaming their child when others mistreat them because they are LGBTQ; blocking access to LGBTQ resources including friends, support groups, and activities; and trying to change their child's sexual orientation and gender identity.2 

LGBTQ youth experience these and other such behaviors as hurtful, harmful, and traumatic and may feel that they need to hide or repress their identity which can affect their self-esteem, increase isolation, depression, and risky behaviors.3 Providers working with families of LGBTQ youth should focus on shared goals, such as reducing risk and having a happy, healthy child. Most parents love their children and fear for their well-being. However, many are uninformed about their child's gender identity and sexual orientation and don't know how to nurture and support them.

In FAP's initial study, LGB young people who reported higher levels of family rejection had substantially higher rates of attempted suicide, depression, illegal drug use, and unprotected sex.4 These rates were even more significant among Latino gay and bisexual men.4 Those who are rejected by family are less likely to want to have a family or to be parents themselves5 and have lower educational and income levels.6

To reduce risk, pediatricians should ask LGBTQ patients about family rejecting behaviors and help parents and caregivers to identify and understand the effect of such behaviors to reduce health risks and conflict that can lead to running away, expulsion, and removal from the home. Even decreasing rejecting behaviors to moderate levels can significantly improve negative outcomes.5

Caitlin Ryan, PhD, and her team also identified and measured more than 50 family accepting behaviors that help protect against risk and promote well-being. They found that young adults who experience high levels of family acceptance during adolescence report significantly higher levels of self-esteem, social support, and general health with much lower levels of depression, suicidality, and substance abuse.7 

Family accepting and supportive behaviors include talking with the child about their LGBTQ identity; advocating for their LGBTQ child when others mistreat them; requiring other family members to treat their LGBTQ child with respect; and supporting their child's gender identity.5 FAP has developed an evidence-informed family support model and multilingual educational resources for families, providers, youth and religious leaders to decrease rejection and increase family support. These are available in print copies and for download at familyproject.sfsu.edu.

In addition, Ryan and colleagues1,4,8 recommend the following guidance for providers:

  • Ask LGBTQ adolescents about family reactions to their sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression, and refer to LGBTQ community support programs and for supportive counseling, as needed.

  • Identify LGBTQ community support programs and online resources to educate parents about how to help their children. Parents need culturally relevant peer support to help decrease rejection and increase family support.

  • Advise parents that negative reactions to their adolescent's LGBTQ identity may negatively impact their child's health and mental health while supportive and affirming reactions promote well-being.

  • Advise parents and caregivers to modify and change family rejecting behaviors that increase their child's risk for suicide, depression, substance abuse ,and risky sexual behaviors.

  • Expand anticipatory guidance to include information on the need for support and the link between family rejection and negative health problems.

  • Provide guidance on sexual orientation and gender identity as part of normative child development during well-baby and early childhood care.

  • Use FAP's multilingual family education booklets and Healthy Futures poster series in family and patient education and provide these materials in clinical and community settings. FAP's Healthy Futures posters include a poster guidance, a version on family acceptance, a version on family rejection and a family acceptance version for conservative families and settings. They are available in camera-ready art in four sizes in English and Spanish and are forthcoming in five Asian languages: familyproject.sfsu.edu/poster.

Lawlis is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, and an adolescent medicine specialist at OU Children's. She has no relevant financial disclosures.

Resources:

  • Family Acceptance Project – consultation and training; evidence-based educational materials for families, providers, religious leaders and youth.

  • PFLAG – peer support for parents and friends with LGBTQ children in all states and several other countries.

References:

1. Ryan C. Generating a revolution in prevention, wellness & care for LGBT children & youth. Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review. 2014;23(2):331-44.

2. Ryan C. Healthy Futures Poster Series – Family Accepting & Rejecting Behaviors That Impact LGBTQ Children's Health & Well-Being. In: Family Acceptance Project Marian Wright Edelman Institute SFSU, ed. San Francisco, CA2019.

3. Ryan C. Family Acceptance Project: Culturally grounded framework for supporting LGBTQ children and youth. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatr. 2019;58(10):S58-9.

4. Ryan C et al. Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in White and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults. Pediatrics. 2009;123(1):346-52.

5. Ryan C. Supportive families, healthy children: Helping families with lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender children. In: Family Acceptance Project Marian Wright Edelman Institute SFSU, ed. San Francisco, CA2009.

6. Ryan C et al. Parent-initiated sexual orientation change efforts with LGBT adolescents: Implications for young adult mental health and adjustment. J Homosexuality. 2020;67(2):159-73.

7. Ryan C et al. Family acceptance in adolescence and the health of LGBT young adults. J Child Adolesc Psychiatr Nursing. 2010;23(4):205-13. 8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. A Practitioner's Guide: Helping Families to Support Their LGBT Children. In: Administration SAaMhS, ed. Vol PEP14-LGBTKIDS. Rockville, MD: HHS Publication; 2014.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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