When Your Teen Identifies as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual….
By Melissa Johnson, PhD
Psychologist (PSY13102), CEO and Founder of the Institute for Girls’ Development.
One of the important tasks of the teen years is asking – and starting to answer – “who am I?” The “who am I?” questions include: Who am I emotionally, socially, intellectually, culturally, relationally, sexually and more. During the teen years, youth consider their sexual orientation, figuring out which gender they are attracted to physically and emotionally. Teens who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual may find the road especially difficult. Stress, fear, isolation, harassment and bullying may be big parts of the teen’s life. And the risk of suicide plans and attempts are high. Tragically, suicide is the second leading cause of death for American teens and young adults (between the ages of 15 and 24). And research shows that 29.4% of LGBTQ youth attempt suicide compared to 6.4% of heterosexual youth. We have found it helpful to share the following hopeful information with parents and other adults who care about teens who have a minority sexual orientation.
First, it’s important to know that identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual is not a mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics all provide clear statements that gay, lesbian or bisexual identities are not a mental illness.
Second, a supportive family makes a big difference. 92% of LGBTQ youth believe in their chances of being a happy and productive LGBTQ adult when they have an extremely accepting family. 77% of LGBTQ youth report their belief in a happy and productive future when they have a very accepting family. Parents often ask what family behaviors can promote this strong sense of well-being for their LGBTQ child. Here are steps families can take:
Take a deep breath – literally and metaphorically. Being supportive, especially initially, is difficult for many parents. Parents sometimes express a sense of guilt when their child or teen shares that they are or may be gay, lesbian or bisexual. Parents may wonder if they did something wrong to “cause” their child to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. Parents also share about their initial rejecting reactions, including mixed feelings, conflicts with religious beliefs, and other challenges. Some parents describe that they’ve expressed their fear as anger when they worry about the safety and the happiness of their child. Given all this, it is helpful for parents to take some time to breathe – and be compassionate toward themselves and the whole family. Taking time to breathe helps us all to respond, not react.
Educate yourself. While taking some time to breathe, take some time to expand what you know. There are many useful resources for teens and parents online, in print, and via support groups. Rebecca Turner, MS, one of our team members, has put together a list of resources below. You may want to start by clicking on the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website. The CDC has a wealth of resources for parents, teens and educators.
Communicate. There is so much to talk about! Be genuinely curious – invite your teen to share about their journey. In your conversations, focus on the journey, not the outcome. Communicate with other family members. You may need to step in when siblings or other family members are a source of harassment. Sometimes, as families focus on the needs of their LGBTQ teen, heterosexual/cisgender siblings may struggle, and feel left out or neglected. They will need your support as well.
Accept, Support and Connect. What are the ways that you can support your child/teen? First, share hope in a positive future. Share the belief that LGBTQ adults can have happy and satisfying lives. Welcome your teen’s friends and partner at family events and activities. Encourage connection with supportive family members and outside role models. Connect with other parents; gain support for yourself.
Some of the statistics and ideas here are drawn from resources by PESI.com and the American Academy of Pediatrics.