Parents and caregivers who show support, even through simple actions, can significantly lower suicide risk and bolster the mental health of LGBTQ young people.
Pride month is a time of celebration. But with current debates over the rights of LGBTQ people front and center in the news, this year may be more challenging for some — particularly young people.
From discussions over giving transgender and nonbinary young people access to gender affirming care to policy proposals that ban the mention of LGBTQ people in classrooms, this is a stressful time for LGBTQ youth.
However, despite the mental health challenges the current political climate presents, a research brief from nonprofit The Trevor Project highlights how parental and guardian support can play a vital role in the wellbeing of LGBTQ youth.
Data from the survey reveals the act of simply accepting a young person’s sexuality and gender identity can go a long way in leading to better mental health outcomes.
In fact, the survey reveals parents and caregivers who adopted simple supportive actions with these young people significantly lowered suicide risk among LGBTQ young people.
The data from this new brief came from The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, which features responses on a range of questions about mental health and wellbeing from 33,993 LGBTQ youth across the United States, ranging from 13 to 24 years old.
What were some of the key findings?
The Trevor Project found that the “most common accepting behavior” displayed by parents and guardians of LGBTQ youth was being kind and welcoming to their kids’ partners and friends.
Out of all surveyed LGBTQ youth, speaking with them respectfully about their identities was tied to an over 40 percent lower odds of a suicide attempt in the past year.
They key supportive actions from the adults and guardians in their lives that the youth cited as being most helpful differed a bit within the various populations that make up the greater LGBTQ community.
For cisgender LGBQ youth, the five most frequently cited supportive actions by these parental and guardian figures were “being welcoming and kind to youths’ LGBTQ friends or partners (at 75 percent); “talking with youth respectfully” about their identities (67 percent); supporting a young person’s gender expression like buying new clothes or taking them out to get a haircut (52 percent); simply “educating themselves” about LGBTQ people and issues (43 percent); and openly and respectfully discussing relevant LGBTQ issues with the youth in their lives (43 percent).
For trans, nonbinary, and gender questioning young people, the top five cited supportive actions taken by guardians and parents were “being welcoming and kind to youths’ LGBTQ friends or partners” (at 69 percent); talking to these young people respectfully about their identities (57 percent); supporting their gender expressions clearly such as buying new clothes or taking them out for a haircut (51 percent); using their names and pronouns correctly (41 percent); and “educating themselves” about LGBTQ people and issues (40 percent).
For cisgender LGBQ youth, the study also shows that eight of the 11 total supportive actions taken by parents and guardians that were relevant to cisgender young people were shown to lead to lower odds of suicide attempt in the past year ranging from 47 to 25 percent.
Transgender, nonbinary, and gender questioning youth said that 11 of the 12 listed supportive actions relevant to them was tied to lower odds of suicide attempt in the past year, ranging from a 42 to 16 percent reduction.
Jonah DeChants, PhD, research scientist for the nonprofit The Trevor Project, told Healthline that research has consistently shown in the past that “when LGBTQ youth feel supported and affirmed in their identities, their odds of attempting suicide can lower significantly. These new findings support that past understanding and also reveal “that something as simple as parents and caregivers talking with youth respectfully about their LGBTQ identity” play a great role in lowering suicide risk.
“While it is unsurprising that parental support is associated with better mental health for LGBTQ youth, it was pleasantly surprising to see many of the supportive actions associated with such significantly lower suicide risk,” DeChants added.
An adult can play a very big role in shaping a young person’s life.
When asked why parental and guardian support can have such a tangible effect on a young LGBTQ person’s overall mental health, Kyle T. Ganson, PhD, MSW, assistant professor who is part of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, said that one’s adolescence and young adult years mark a key moment of “Identity formation, personal exploration, and testing one’s independence from their family.”
“While there is often the narrative that young people don’t need their primary caregivers or don’t want anything to do with them, they often still need their caregivers to provide and maintain that secure base to return to as they test their identity and independence,” said Ganson, who is not affiliated with the research brief from The Trevor Project. “They need these strong relationships that have been built over the years for comfort, support, and love, particularly through difficult times.”
Ganson said that for LGBTQ youth specifically, the accepting, validating base of support that a parent or guardian can provide “may be particularly important” given how many young people experience elevated rates of social stigma, bullying, and the “stressors while living as a ‘minority’ in the ‘majority’ world.”
When it comes to discussions around the elevated risk of suicide among LGBTQ youth, DeChants said it is important to note that queer youth are “not inherently prone” to suicide risk or suicidal ideation because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Instead, they are “placed at higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized in a society.”
“If a young person can grow up in a household that respects and supports them for who they are, that developmental experience can play a powerful role in destigmatizing the LGBTQ community and combating misinformation around what it means to be part of this community,” DeChants explained.
“Respectful discussion communicates to LGBTQ youth that their families see them for who they are and want to support them, and may also make LGBTQ youth more likely to reach out to parents or caregivers if they experience anti-LGBTQ bias or are struggling with their mental health,” he added.
Ganson said that LGBTQ youth are unique compared to their cisgender and straight peers, in that they have explored their gender and sexual identities “and often come to a conclusion one way or another in relation to these identities well before their caregivers are cued into this.”
As a result, a parental figure might be “caught off guard or surprised or even doubting” of that young person’s identity, he said.
This doubting of something as personal as gender identity or sexuality can have adverse effects on a young person’s mental health, especially since these adult figures are often the main sources of support for these youth.
They usually are the ones providing a reserve of “unconditional love and support” that a young person can turn to, especially during difficult times.
“So, even if a caregiver is uncertain of their youth’s gender or sexual identity, or don’t fully understand their experience, engaging in conversations with their youth from a stance of respectful curiosity can provide validation and support without being rejecting,” Ganson said. “It shows care, openness, and willingness to be there for them, which may ultimately reduce negative feelings among the youth such as low self-esteem and self-worth, depressive thinking patterns, and isolation.”
He added this can “reduce suicidal thinking patterns and behaviors,” and that the respect given to a young person from an adult guardian can open doors for dialogue on a range of topics tied to their day-do-day life, which, yes, includes gender and sexuality, but also social life, mental health, school, and friends.
DeChants pointed to past research from The Trevor Project that shows that support and affirmation of both sexual orientation and gender identity from adults and peers are tied to lower suicide risk for LGBTQ young people.
While parental affirmation is important, he explained that research shows support of one’s sexuality from heterosexual friends is tied to 46 percent lower odds of suicide attempt in the past year.
Similarly support of one’s gender identity from “non-parent family members” is tied to 49 percent lower odds of past-year suicide attempt.
“However, given that parents and caregivers often spend such a significant amount of time with LGBTQ youth at home, parents and caregivers may have many more opportunities to show support to their children,” he added.
Some parents and guardians of LGBTQ youth reading this might be unsure exactly where to turn when it comes to educating themselves on how to be as supportive as possible of the young people in their lives. Not every parent is educated on issues tied to gender identity and sexuality, or are receptive to listening to concerns voiced by the children and teens in their families and communities.
Ganson said it is important to be open and respectful. Everything else follows from there.
“Caregivers may have their doubts or disagree or even not fully support their youth’s gender or sexual identity, but approaching their youth with an openness can be extremely helpful,” Ganson added. “It is also important for caregivers to do their research and attempt to understand what it may mean for their young person to identify as LGBTQ.”
Doing this needed homework can help “reduce caregiver anxiety or uncertainty” and might also open up better, more positive dialogues with LGBTQ youth. It can also lead to greater empathy to put themselves in the shoes of the young people in their lives.
“Lastly, try to honor their youth’s gender or sexual identity. Practice using desired pronouns and correct yourself when you slip, or be open to their youth’s partner,” Ganson said. “Again, the validation and support from caregivers can provide a base of a strong sense of self and confidence for LGBTQ youth to enter the world from.”
DeChants stressed that studies like this one are needed to help guide and shape more open, connected conversations.
He said The Trevor Project has a range of resources online that can point parents, guardians, and allies to best practices on how to support LGBTQ youth.
DeChants pointed to the nonprofit’s Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth, as one example of a helpful resource. He said more can be found at TheTrevorProject.org/Resources.
This data shows that more needs to be done to foster safer, more welcoming spaces for LGBTQ young people at home, in the classroom, and beyond. As a society, we especially have to do what we can to support transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive youth.
“These findings demonstrate that rates for all but one of the supportive actions analyzed were lower among transgender, nonbinary, and gender questioning youth compared to cisgender LGBQ youth. This suggests that parents and caregivers of trans, nonbinary, and gender questioning youth may be less equipped – or more resistant – to affirm their child’s identity,” DeChants said. “That is definitely something worth analyzing further in the future. Future research should also examine the role of families’ racial or cultural identities in supporting their LGBTQ children in order to better understand how to support families of color.”