“I’m gay.” Two seemingly simple words. But how a parent or caregiver receives these words can be anything but simple. Many accept and support their children. Some don’t know what to say or do. Others become angry or throw their children out of the house.
Families may not know how much their words and actions matter. In fact, how families respond when youth come out during adolescence can have a powerful impact on young people’s health and well-being, according to groundbreaking research by the Family Acceptance Project™,a community research, intervention and education initiative in San Francisco. In general, youth whose families support them are healthier and happier than those whose families reject them, says Caitlin Ryan, director of the project and a faculty member at San Francisco State University.
Based on their findings, Ryan and her colleagues are developing a strengths-based approach to help families increase their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning children and adolescents.
We spoke with Ryan about how youth-serving professionals can effectively work with LGBTQ youth and their families.
NCFY: Your research shows that family acceptance is vital to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people. In what ways do families have such a big impact?
CR: First, I want to say that families have a big impact on all of their children, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Family connections have been shown to prevent major health risks and are a critical foundation for general well-being for all children.
That said, our research with diverse families and caregivers shows that how they react and adjust to their children’s coming out can have a dramatic and compelling impact on their LGBT children’s health, mental health and well-being. LGBT young people whose parents and caregivers reject them or try to change them are at high risk for depression, substance abuse, suicide and HIV infection. And LGBT young people whose parents support them and stand up for them show much higher levels of self-esteem and greater well-being, with lower rates of health and mental health problems.
NCFY: Given that a lot of young people run away or are asked to leave home because of acceptance issues, what should shelter workers be thinking about if an LGBT young person shows up in their program?
CR: Before doing anything, it’s important to ask the young person about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity and let them talk about their experiences.
Then, family outreach services are critical. Many providers don’t see families as a potential resource for helping their LGBT children. But don’t assume that families don’t have the capacity to change and grow. With some information and outreach, many families can become more accepting and supportive.
It’s important to work with the family to help them understand the basic reasons why the young person left home or was forced out. Sometimes, just telling a family member, “You know, when you pressure your child to be more or less masculine or feminine, they hear this as rejection.”
Most families are motivated by care and concern for their child, and many families who drive a child out of the home regret it greatly. They want to help, but they don’t have enough information. Our research has shown that just a little bit of education can have a big impact on how families react, and in turn, just a little bit of change within the family can have a huge impact on decreasing risks for the LGBT young person.
Also, the longer a young person has been on the street, the harder it is to reestablish a normative living situation, so family outreach and education should really happen as soon as possible.
NCFY: Through your research, you’ve identified over 100 behaviors within families that either serve to support or reject LGBT children. Can you identify the top three accepting behaviors that service providers should look for or encourage among families? What about the most rejecting behaviors providers should be aware of?
First, I want to say that there is room for every kind of family regardless of ethnicity, culture or religious beliefs. We’ve studied very diverse families, and one behavior that makes a major difference for a LGBT child is for the parent or caregiver to allow the young person to talk about their LGBT identity, to let them talk about what their life is like without interrupting or judging or punishing.
Beyond that, some of the most important wellness promoting behaviors include supporting the child’s gender expression, welcoming LGBT friends and partners into the home and at family events and activities and making positive comments about LGBT issues.
Rejecting behaviors to avoid include, obviously, verbal and physical abuse related to LGBT identity, blocking access to LGBT friends and supports, blaming the child when they are victimized or discriminated against because of their LGBT identity, and excluding the child from family events and activities.
NCFY: Are family relationships so vital that connecting a young person with just one family member, even among extended family, leads to better outcomes than if a young person finds sources of support elsewhere?
CR: Well, most young people hunger for some connection with their family of origin, so if it’s not a parent, often there is an aunt, uncle or older cousin who would be supportive. The importance of a single caring adult cannot be overstated.
NCFY: If connections with family are unhealthy or inappropriate, what would you say are the most important other sources of support for LGBT youth?
CR: Another positive adult role model could be from a faith institution, teachers, adult community leaders. Young people learn to cope in lots of different ways – through school, sports, expressive arts – all of the areas that are supportive to young people in general. Theater, dance, photography can help LGBT youth channel feelings of pain and alienation and help them make sense of a sometimes senseless world.