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How Parental Support Affects Mental Health of LGBTQ Youth

Brian Mastroianni

Originally Reported

Mixetto/Getty Images

For many LGBTQ people, support and affirmation in an environment where they feel safe and seen can make all the difference when it comes to mental health outcomes.

Now, new research out of The University of Texas at Austin, shed some more light on the role both positive and negative support from parents and guardians can play on the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ youth.

Specifically, it shows that those who had the most support experienced fewer depressive symptoms, while those who had higher levels of depressive symptoms were the recipients of more negative, “psychological control” from their parents.

What this research does is provide more context to a growing understanding of the overall mental health of American LGBTQ children and adolescents at a volatile time when issues around their identities — and acceptance of their identities — make frequent headlines.

This study complements past research that indicates the benefits a queer young person can experience if they feel supported by their parents — as well as the pitfalls they may face if they feel judged, stigmatized, or mistreated by their guardians and the adult figures in their lives.

How the study was conducted

This new study was recently publishedTrusted Source in the journal Child Development. The researchers surveyed 536 LGBTQ youth by way of data “from the first two waves of a longitudinal study of sexual and gender minority youth, which was designed to investigate risk factors for suicide,” according to a press release.

The data came from four consecutive collection periods starting in November 2011, with each period taking place 9 months after the preceding data collection time frame. The participants ranged in age from 15 to 21 years old and were recruited through college and community organizations in the northeast, the west coast, and the southwest.

The main goal of this research was to look at the role parental support, or their efforts to “intrude into the psychological and emotional development” of the young person, had on the presence of depressive symptoms.

For the survey, the young participants responded to questions on a range of topics that included:

  • parental social support

  • parental psychological control

  • parents’ knowledge of the young person’s LGBTQ identity

  • rating their depressive symptoms

  • reporting on their sexual, gender, race, and ethnic identities,

  • whether they received free or reduced-price lunch at school

When assessing the responses, lead author Amy McCurdy, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at The University of Texas at Austin, said she was struck by two things: the fact that “parent support and parent control were both influential in predicting youth depressive symptoms” and the fact that the influences of parental support or control “mattered most for LGBTQ youth who were not currently out to their parents.”

“The first finding is surprising in that it differs from the results of a previous study, which found that parent control supersedes the importance of parent support – our study shows that both are influential at the same time,” McCurdy told Healthline.

“The second finding is new. Given that there is not much research out there about LGBTQ youth who are not out to their parent, or parents — because parents have to consent for youth to participate in research — this finding indicates the crucial importance of parenting for these youth,” McCurdy added.

McCurdy further explained her new research “bridges the gap” between research on LGBTQ youth populations in general and research specifically on parenting itself.

When it comes to parenting research, she said most of it “does not explicitly consider youth sexual identity.”

By linking the two, this new work paints a broader picture of exactly how interactions with the adults who have, in many ways, the most directly impactful effect on molding these young people’s lives, affect their mental health.

“However, obviously general parenting practices matter for LGBTQ youth, too,” she added. “This new research demonstrates the importance of general social support and control for LGBTQ youth in particular, and suggests that the meaning of parenting may change based on whether youth are out to their parent — or parents — or not.”

In the study, McCurdy and her co-author acknowledge some limitations of this work. It relies on self-reported data, “generalizability of the sampling frame,” and “timeframe differences in key study measures.” The authors state that a “deeper understanding of parenting practices” is needed in future research.

Kyle T. Ganson, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor who is part of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, said that this research gives more context to the quality of the relationships between parents and the youth in their lives.

“This is of course important because it can help provide intervention points to support the mental health and LGBTQ+ young people,” Ganson, who is unaffiliated with this research, told Healthline. “For example, mental health professionals can support families, parents, caregivers, adjust their engagement with young people away from psychological control to more parental social support.”

When asked why parental support might result in fewer depressive symptoms, while more negative psychological control had the opposite impact, McCurdy said that the key reasons lie in the fact that support from one’s parent might “help youth cope with stress,” while psychological control “may restrict youth development and independence.”

“An important takeaway from this research is that parents can actually exhibit both parenting practices – and for LGBTQ youth who are not out to their parents, having highly controlling parents appears to undermine even high support that parents may offer,” she explained.

Diversity of the participants

McCurdy’s research surveyed a wide swath of LGBTQ youth. For instance, 252 identified as men, 258 women, and 26 as another gender.

Beyond gender, 35% identified as bisexual, 34% as gay, 20% as lesbian, 6.7% as questioning, and 2.4% as heterosexual or straight but still identified as transgender or gender diverse.

When it comes to racial and ethnic background, the participants were:

  • 25% were Black or African American

  • 24.4% identified as multiracial or another race

  • 22.6% were white or European American

  • 6.0% identified as Asian American or Pacific Islander

  • 37.1% reported being Hispanic or Latino/a/x

  • 8.9% “did not report this information

How positive or parental support affects LGBTQ youth of color

To better understand how some of the most vulnerable young people in American society are affectecd, McCurdy’s research coincidentally is released almost in concert with a new research brief from The Trevor Project.

That brief examines the mental health of Black transgender and nonbinary young people. The data from this research were derived from The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health.

Among the findings, Black transgender and nonbinary young people with high social support from family had 47% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year.

“There are many variables that may impact the mental health of any LGBTQ young person, so we cannot draw the direct impact of any single one. However, support and affirmation or rejection from one’s parents and/or guardians often play a critical role,” Jonah DeChants, PhD, research scientist for the nonprofit The Trevor Project, told Healthline. “Our survey research has consistently shown that high social support from family is associated with lower suicide risk among LGBTQ young people.”

Pointing to the statistic of Black transgender and nonbinary youth with parental support having 47% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year, DeChants said “these findings point to the reality that when LGBTQ youth feel affirmed in who they are by those closest to them, their ability to maintain positive mental health and well-being becomes more attainable.”

In having these discussions on LGBTQ youth mental health, DeChants stressed that these young people are “not inherently prone to suicide risk because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Instead, they are placed at higher risk due to the ways they are stigmatized and mistreated “by anti-LGBTQ bias in society.”

For those LGBTQ young people who have multiple marginalized identities, like Black transgender or nonbinary individuals, the “increased experiences of victimization and discrimination due to the combined effects of both transphobia and racism may exacerbate disparities in suicide risk and negative mental health outcomes,” DeChants added.

Essentially, it’s a call to action that society needs to be intersectional in how it approaches better support for these young people.

Ganson said that once “we start to add on these layers of identities that are marginalized or stigmatized or oppressed in society” the risk for mental health concerns goes up.

“Of course, families, parents, caregivers can be buffers for young people by providing that positive social support to provide a base of acceptance, care, love, that young people may not experience in their greater social life,” he said.

For her part, McCurdy said previous research reveals that discrimination “increases the chance of depression,” and that it is necessary for future research to look at these links among LGBTQ youth of color, especially for those who are nonbinary and transgender.

“Previous research finds that the families of LGBTQ youth of color are incredibly important allies to them in the context of discrimination, and we might find that parent social support is even more strongly linked with less depression for these youth,” McCurdy said.

How parents can be better allies and sources of support

Ganson said that LGBTQ+ young people in particular face marginalization and discrimination based on sexual and gender identity at relatively high rates, something that can particularly be compounded in a damaging way by the kind of psychological control McCurdy’s study highlights.

“Psychological control demonstrates to young people that their opinions or viewpoints don’t matter to their parents, therefore impacting their identity development and self-esteem, possibly leading to depressive symptoms,” he said.

When asked how parents and guardians could be better sources of support for these young people, DeChants asserted that they “do not have to be experts in LGBTQ topics to support the LGBTQ young people in their lives.”

“Previous research shows that actions as simple as parents and caregivers talking with youth respectfully about their LGBTQ identity can be associated with more than 40% lower odds of attempting suicide in the past year,” DeChants added. “When it comes to allyship, self-education is key — and The Trevor Project has a number of resources available that offer best practices for supporting LGBTQ youth, such our Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth.”

When it comes to what she is looking at ahead with her work, McCurdy said that she is looking forward to investigating how various parenting practices co-occur and “simultaneously influence youth mental health.”

“We are learning that supportive parenting and controlling parenting are not necessarily opposites In many instances, youth perceive a mixture of both as they strive for independence,” McCurdy explained. “I am currently working on several projects related to parenting experiences among transgender and gender expansive youth of color and experiences of LGBTQ youth in foster care or unstable housing.”

Boiling it all down to the essentials, it comes down to empathy, respect, and acceptance.

Ganson added that just “being present and encouraging young people’s exploration of their identity and development of a sense of self” is essential.

“Adolescent development is a challenging time for many given the social pressures and physical, psychological, and emotional changes that occur. Understanding this process and being present to support it is crucial,” he said.

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