New Study On Families Reactions to Teens Coming Out

January 5, 2009
Over the holidays, the results of an important new study about the role that family reactions to teenagers coming out can have later in life was released.  Especially at this time of year, it was an important reminder of how much it matters that family members are supportive of the LGBT people in their families. The study, conducted by San Francisco State University's Family Acceptance Project, was released in the January issue of Pediatrics, the official journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics and picked up in a wide range of media outlets, from The Associated Press to U.S. News and World Report.  The AP talked about the importance of parental response to lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) teens, and the potential implications later in life:
"Parents love their children and want the best for them," said lead researcher Caitlin Ryan, a social worker who directs the university's Family Acceptance Project. "Now that we have measured all these behaviors, we can see that some of them put youth at extremely high risk and others are wellness-promoting."
Among other findings, the study showed that teens who experienced negative feedback were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times as vulnerable to severe depression and more than three times at risk of drug use.
More significantly, Ryan said, ongoing work at San Francisco State suggests that parents who take even baby steps to respond with equanimity instead of rejection can dramatically improve a gay youth's mental health outlook.
One of the most startling findings was that being forbidden to associate with gay peers was as damaging as being physically beaten or verbally abused by their parents in terms of negative feedback, Ryan said.
The study first looked at 51 families and documented a variety of reactions to the coming out process, and then divided those reactions along a spectrum from "accepting" to "rejecting."  The researchers then spoke with 225 LGB adults, documented the responses and reactions they experienced from their families when they came out as teens, and then looked at their behaviors as adults. Sten Vermund, a Vanderbilt University pediatrician familiar with the study and Ryan's work, underscored the point that the data is especially significant for doctors and families working to provide guidance to LGB teens:
"So many families of children who are gay, bisexual or transgender, particularly families of gay male youth, think that if they are tough on the kid and tell him how unsatisfactory his gay lifestyle is to the family, he will have it knocked out of him," Vermund said.
Vermund said he also was impressed by Ryan's finding that a little bit of familial acceptance could go a long way in increasing a child's chances for future happiness.
"The Southern Baptist doesn't have to become a Unitarian," he said. "Someone can still be uncomfortable with their child's sexual orientation, but if they are somewhat more accepting and do the best the can, they will do the youth a lot of good. That to me is an important message."
While some of the language used in these articles misses the mark, the overall message is vitally important We have seen time and time again through our work just how vital that family acceptance is, particularly for young people, and our Be An Ally & A Friend resource has information to help family members and friends be accepting of the LGBT people in their lives.  The response that we've had from young people - and their parents - to our public service announcements and the storylines about LGBT teens that we've collaborated on for shows like South of Nowhere and All My Children has been an important reminder about how important it is to be supportive of young people.  And this study - and the media coverage of the study - gives us even more concrete evidence to remind us of that fact.