A new study from the Family Acceptance Project (FAP) finds that though there are a number of sources of support for LGBT youth, none has as big an impact as acceptance by families. Peer support, community support, and being out and open all contributed to life satisfaction, self-esteem, and sense of self-worth for young people, but family support had a significantly stronger influence to overall adjustment and well-being. The article, “Social Support Networks for LGBT Young Adults: Low Cost Strategies for Positive Adjustment,” appears in the July issue of the Family Relations journal.
FAP director Caitlin Ryan, who was also a researcher on the study, told ThinkProgress that research on the impact of families on LGBT youth has long been lacking. “Historically, peers and LGBT community resources were seen as the only sources of support for LGBT youth since the perception was widespread that families would not only reject their LGBT children but were unable to learn to support them,” she explained. “The impact of that perception was several decades of not engaging families as a potential source of support for their LGBT children with the end result of not developing family-based services and not including families in their adolescent’s care.”
Other research from FAP has helped reverse that trend, but this new study demonstrates not only that families are important to LGBT youth’s well-being, but that they are likely one of the most important factors. “In this sample,” the study reads, “family acceptance during the teenage years was the only form of support that significantly predicted all measures of young adult adjustment, and it remained a significant factor when other salient forms of support from friends and the community were considered.” Family support, both generally and specifically in reference to a child’s identity, “is a crucial factor in LGBT youth’s health and well-being.”
According to Ryan, “when families accept and support their LGBT children, this helps build self-esteem and feelings of self-worth,” which she believes then “contributes to positive coping skills and helps increase resilience.” Feeling valued by their parents and families allows these young people to “deal more effectively with challenges and adversity and with the stigma that many LGBT people still experience.” Family acceptance is “like a vaccine that protects their LGBT children with love.”
ThinkProgress asked Ryan what exactly constitutes “acceptance.” For example, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, recently told families that they should not kick their LGBT kids out of the house or be ashamed of them. Is that enough to achieve the positive results?
Ryan said that the first step is to show religiously conservative families that rejection has a negative impact. Research has shown that using religion to condemn an adolescent’s LGBT identity or telling them that God will punish them because they are LGBT can contribute to serious health risks, including suicide, substance abuse, and STDs/HIV. “Most families, including very religious families, are shocked to learn that behaviors they engage in to try to help their LGBT children fit in and be accepted by others instead contribute to serious health risks, such as suicide attempts.”
Ryan hopes that FAP’s resources help families understand “how to care for their LGBT child even if they disagree in ways that promote parent-child connectedness and increase their child’s self-esteem.” Even conservative families can learn specific supportive behaviors, like talking to their LGBT child to learn about their experiences, requiring other family members to treat the child with respect even if they disagree, and standing up for and advocating for their child when others mistreat them for who they are. “These supportive reactions go far beyond not just throwing an LGBT child out of the home to express core values of major religions such as mercy, compassion and love.”
“Historically, many religiously conservative families thought they had to choose between their LGBT child and their faith,” Ryan said. But the increasing research on family acceptance, along with FAP’s growing toolkit of faith-targeted resources, “help families make core connections between their religious values and having an LGBT child. As many very religious families learn to support their LGBT child, this includes helping their congregations learn to support — not just stop rejecting — LGBT people.”
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