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Parental Rejection of Gay Teens May Cause Risky Behavior

Allie Montgomery, kolotv.com/health , January 16, 2009

At some point in our lives, we all know what it is like to be on the outside looking in, but for some people that feeling can linger on and burgeon into bigger problems. In particular, gay young adults whose families rejected them when they were younger are far more likely to have histories of illegal drug use, unprotected sex, and suicide attempts.

In recent decades, some studies have found that bisexual, lesbian, and gay children are much more likely to suffer from a variety of problems which include suicide and depression. Researchers attribute these type problems to social stigma around homosexuality, but there has been a gap in regarding the role of the reaction of these children's families about their sexuality.

In the most recent study, researchers first talked to 49 Latino and Caucasian families in California to determine how they reacted to children who weren't heterosexual, so they would know what to watch for when they started the main research. 

After the researcher's initial interviews, they surveyed approximately 224 lesbian, bisexual, and gay adults, ages 21 to 25, in the greater San Francisco areal. All of the participants surveyed were Latino or Caucasian, and the researchers located them by contacting groups in the community and visiting clubs, bars, and other popular nightspots. These interviews took place between the years 2002 and 2005.

More than two-thirds of the people who had been rejected by their families said that they had tried to commit suicide, compared with about 20 percent of those who reported the lowest rates of rejection from their families. Approximately 46 percent of the people in the most rejected group stated that they had unprotected sex with a casual partner within the last 6 months, which is nearly twice the rate of those in the least-rejected group. Also, those in the most-rejected group had higher rates of illegal drug use, depression, and substance abuse problems. However, the people that are in this group had somewhat lower rates of drinking heavily.

However, these findings do not prove that a family's negative reaction to their child's sexuality will directly cause these problems later in life. Caitlin Ryan, who is a clinical social worker at San Francisco State University and the lead author of a study released in the January issue of Pediatrics, stated that it is very clear that, "there's a connection between how families treat gay and lesbian children and their mental and physical health."

In terms of rejection, there were many cases where caregivers and families thought they were doing what would help their children have a better life, fit in, belong, and be accepted by their peers. They would try and change their gender identity, forbid them from spending time with any friends that were gay, and not let them have any access to information about what it is like to be a lesbian, bisexual, or gay individual.

In some of these cases, the parents would not stand up for their children when they would have problems in school.

Ryan said, "Their parents would say, 'Of course that's going to happen to you.'. They'll blame the victim."

Ryan stated that the findings suggest that health care providers should look for signs of trouble by talking with teens about their sexual orientation. As for their families, they should emphasize to their children that they will always love them even if they disagree with their choices.

In cases of the children being rejected, Ryan said, "Most of these families feel that being gay is wrong or sinful or the worst thing that could happen. What often doesn't get communicated is that they still love their child."

Stephen T. Russell, who is the director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families at the University of Arizona, said that this study confirms his suspicions about the harm that is caused when gay children get rejected from their families. He also said that is very important to have research that documents all of the risks, which means adding guidance to the study that pinpoints the specific harmful things that families do.

Russell echoed Ryan by saying that families often have their children's best interest in mind even as they lay the groundwork for tremendous harm. Most families choose to do these harmful things because they think it is the right thing to do. They think that it is protecting their children and making things better for them as they grow up.

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