Parents of lesbian, gay and bisexual teens are reported being less supportive of their children than they were 20 years ago, according to a new study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. The same study shows that concurrently, perceived parental support has increased for heterosexual teens.
The authors of the paper contrast this with a general mellowing of mainstream attitudes toward formerly divisive issues such as gay marriage over the same time period.
“This increasing societal acceptance really doesn’t filter down to youth who are still in school, who are still being discriminated against or victimized by their classmates,” says the report’s co-author Hilary Rose, an associate professor in the Department of Applied Human Sciences at Concordia. “And it doesn’t trickle down to parent-child relations. Frankly, we were surprised by that.”
Ryan J. Watson at the University of Connecticut is the report’s lead author. Other co-authors include Marion Doull and Elizabeth Saewyc from the University of British Columbia and Jones Adjei at Red Deer College.
Data for decades
The researchers looked at the unusually large data set gathered from the quinquennial British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey, administered in 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2013. These four waves of responses gave them data from nearly 100,000 BC adolescents. The McCreary Centre Society, a non-governmental, non-profit youth health organization, conducts the anonymous survey of BC high school students every five years.
The survey asks respondents personal questions on dozens of topics relating to health, including some about their sexual orientation. Rose says the study benefits from anonymized answers that reflect teens in their ordinary settings.
“Most studies looking at sexual minority youth, which is an umbrella term I use, rely on very small data sets,” she says. “Often the data comes from teens who are in crisis. But here we can use a population-based sample — we get large numbers of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth when they are not in crisis, which is most of the time.”
Society and family dynamics do not always match
The authors write that “heterosexual boys and girls reported more family connectedness and mother/father support across all four survey years in general, and there were many instances where bisexual, gay and lesbian youth reported lower levels of family connectedness and mother/father support.”
The study notes declines in perceived support from both parents of sexual minority teens, though the drop was sharper among fathers.
Sexual minority teens did report higher levels of family connectedness in 2013, although they were significantly lower compared to their heterosexual peers.
Rose speculates there are several dynamics at play behind these findings.
First, she says that as societal norms around sexual minorities have eased, more young people are finding it easier to come out at younger ages, sometimes even before they have reached puberty.
Another may be a backlash against the changing of those same societal norms. As gay marriage became a frequent topic of political conversation, Rose wonders if it led to less tolerance toward sexual minorities in the home.
Parents as shields
Sexual minority youth are already associated with higher levels of bullying, suicidal thoughts, depression and likelihood of dropping out of school or leaving home early.
“Parental support is a huge protective factor for sexual minority youth,” she says. “It helps them deal with victimization at school, for instance. But if they cannot even count on parental support, you have to wonder, what are these kids going to do?”
Rose says researchers will soon be analyzing data from the 2018 BC Adolescent Health Survey.
“We know that interventions such as parenting programs can help parents who initially reject their LGBT teens learn to accept them,” she says. “So in addition to basic research, we need to develop programs to help parents be more supportive of their children — all of their children.”