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Most LGBTQ+ youth are happy and thrive during their adolescent years.
Most lesbian, gay, bisexual, (LGBTQ+) youth are happy and thrive during their adolescent years. Having a school that creates a safe and supportive learning environment for all students and having caring and accepting parents are especially important. Positive environments can help all youth achieve good grades and maintain good mental and physical health. However, some LGBTQ+ youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to experience negative health and life outcomes.
For youth to thrive in schools and communities, they need to feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe and supported. A positive school climate has been associated with decreased depression, suicidal feelings, substance use, and unexcused school absences among LGBTQ+ students.
Promoting Health Safety Among LGBTQ+ Youth
Experiences with Violence
Compared with other students, negative attitudes toward LGBTQ+ persons may put these youth at increased risk for experiences with violence. ‘Violence’ can include behaviors such as bullying, teasing, harassment, and physical assault.
According to data from the 2015 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), of surveyed LGBTQ+ students:
- 10% were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property
- 34% were bullied on school property
- 28% were bullied electronically
- 23% of LGBTQ+ students who had dated or went out with someone during the 12 months before the survey had experienced sexual dating violence in the prior year
- 18% of LGBTQ+ students had experienced physical dating violence
- 18% of LGBTQ+ students had been forced to have sexual intercourse at some point in their lives.
Effects on Education and Mental Health
Exposure to violence can have negative effects on the education and health of any young person and may account for some of the health-related disparities between LGBTQ+ and heterosexual youth.
According to the 2015 YRBS, LGBTQ+ students were 140% (12% v. 5%) more likely to not go to school at least one day during the 30 days prior to the survey because of safety concerns, compared with heterosexual students.3 While not a direct measure of school performance, absenteeism has been linked to low graduation rates, which can have lifelong consequences.
A complex combination of factors can impact youth health outcomes. LGBTQ+ youth are at greater risk for depression, suicide, substance use, and sexual behaviors that can place them at increased risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Nearly one-third (29%) of LGBTQ+ youth had attempted suicide at least once in the prior year compared to 6% of heterosexual youth. In 2014, young gay and bisexual men accounted for 8 out of 10 HIV diagnoses among youth.
What Schools Can Do
Schools can implement evidence-based policies, procedures, and activities designed to promote a healthy environment for all youth, including LGBTQ+ students. For example, research has shown that in schools with LGBTQ+ support groups (such as gay-straight alliances), LGBTQ+ students were less likely to experience threats of violence, miss school because they felt unsafe, or attempt suicide than those students in schools without LGBTQ+ support groups. A recent study found that LGBTQ+ students had fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts when schools had gay-straight alliances and policies prohibiting expression of homophobia in place for 3 or more years.
To help promote health and safety among LGBTQ+ youth, schools can implement the following policies and practices:
- Encourage respect for all students and prohibit bullying, harassment, and violence against all students.
- Identify “safe spaces”, such as counselors’ offices or designated classrooms, where LGBTQ+ youth can receive support from administrators, teachers, or other school staff.
- Encourage student-led and student-organized school clubs that promote a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment (e.g., gay-straight alliances or gender and sexuality alliances, which are school clubs open to youth of all sexual orientations and genders).
- Ensure that health curricula or educational materials include HIV, other STD, and pregnancy prevention information that is relevant to LGBTQ+ youth (such as ensuring that curricula or materials use language and terminology.
- Provide trainings to school staff on how to create safe and supportive school environments for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and encourage staff to attend these trainings.
- Facilitate access to community-based providers who have experience providing health services, including HIV/STD testing and counseling, social, and psychological services to LGBTQ+ youth.
What Parents Can Do
Positive parenting practices, such as having honest and open conversations, can help reduce teen health risk behaviors. How parents engage with their LGBTQ+ teen can have a tremendous impact on their adolescent’s current and future mental and physical health.
Supportive and accepting parents can help youth cope with the challenges of being an LGBTQ+ teen.18 On the other hand, unsupportive parents who react negatively to learning that their daughter or son is LGBTQ+ can make it harder for their teen to thrive. Parental rejection has been linked to depression, use of drugs and alcohol, and risky sexual behavior among teens.
To be supportive, parents should talk openly and supportively with their teen about any problems or concerns. It is also important for parents to watch for behaviors that might indicate their teen is a victim of bullying or violence―or that their teen may be victimizing others. If bullying, violence, or depression is suspected, parents should take immediate action, working with school personnel and other adults in the community.
Ways Parents Can Influence the Health of Their LGBTQ+ Youth
More research is needed to better understand the associations between parenting and the health of LGBTQ+ youth. The following are research-based steps parents can take to support the health and well-being of their LGBTQ+ teen:
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Talk and listen.
Parents who talk with and listen to their teen in a way that invites an open discussion about sexual orientation can help their teen feel loved and supported. Parents should have honest conversations with their teens about sex and how to avoid risky behaviors and unsafe situations.
Parents who take time to come to terms with how they feel about their teen’s sexual orientation will be more able to respond calmly and use respectful language. Parents should develop common goals with their teen, including being healthy and doing well in school.
Parents who make an effort to know their teen’s friends and know what their teen is doing can help their teen stay safe and feel cared about.
Parents can access many organizations and online information resources to learn more about how they can support their LGBTQ+ teen, other family members, and their teen’s friends.
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