Parenting LGBTQ+ Youth: Considerations During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Kareen M. Matouk, PhD and Melina Wald, PhD

The challenges experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) youth significantly impact their lives and mental health. LGBTQ+ youth regularly battle difficulties with discrimination and isolation, which may lead to decreased self-esteem and depressive symptoms. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, risk factors for suicide among LGBTQ+ youth include bullying, feelings of hopelessness, and unwillingness to seek help because of the associated stigma. As a result, LGBTQ+ children and adolescents are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidality. These challenges are even more pronounced amongst youth who are transgender or non-binary. 

Given these risks, LGBTQ+ youth are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In this year of quarantine and physical distancing, many have lost contact with social networks and community support, including in-school counseling andsupport groups and clubs, such as Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs). GSAs are proven to provide LGBTQ+ youth and their allies safe environments where they can feel empowered, socialize, and receive support. They provide visibility and feelings of safety and acceptance. Additionally, access to GSAs significantly reduces the risk for depression and increases wellbeing among LGBTQ+ youth. Another protective factor against anxiety and depression is access to supportive peers. Since many LGBTQ+ youth rely on these networks, the consequences of physical distancing include decreased positive social interactions and support. In addition, there are unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ children and adolescents that are exclusive to the pandemic. Virtual learning and mandatory camera policies exacerbate symptoms of gender dysphoria as students encounter their reflection and legal name on screen. Moreover, individuals in the process of coming out typically tend to view their future as brighter and more hopeful than their present lives. Given that in our current environment, the future feels more distant and ambiguous, positive feelings may be harder for LGBTQ+ youth to envision. 

Despite these increased adversities, it is worth noting some benefits to the changes associated with the quarantine. For LGBTQ+ youth bullied at school, online learning can feel safer. Some gender expansive youth who live with supportive family members may also find it safer to experiment with gender expression at home rather than at school. Additionally, social media may increase visibility for queer youth, helping them to stay connected and hear from other voices and experiences that resonate with theirs. Even so, the nature of the quarantine means that any challenges faced by LGBTQ+ youth are invisible to the public, further compounding this population’s vulnerability factors and risks. It is imperative that parents, caregivers, teachers, and mental health professionals bear this in mind so that LGBTQ+ youth do not slip through the cracks.  

Parental support in the lives of LBGTQ+ youth is particularly crucial. Moreover, the increased amount of time many youth are spending at home with families crystalizes the importance of the relationship between parents and their LGBTQ+ youth. Several studies have documented the positive effect of parental acceptance, support, and advocacy on LGBTQ+ children and adolescence. Similarly, the absence of this support, perhaps especially in the absence of school and social support limited by the pandemic, is associated with significant increases in mental health distress.

Parenting an LGBTQ+ child can bring many joys. Parents of LGBTQ+ youth often credit their children with enriching their lives, increasing their own sense of community among other parents or the LGBTQ+ community at large, expanding their sense of possibility, challenging previously held assumptions, and increasing their awareness of the experiences of marginalized communities. For non-LGBTQ+ parents, there may be more of a learning curve or a period of adjustment following a child’s disclosure of their identity before these joys can be fully experienced. Although this reaction is understandable (especially if the family’s cultural or religious beliefs are not accepting of LGBTQ+ individuals), it is highly important that parents find a space to process anxiety and negative feelings outsideof their relationship with their child. These spaces may include relying on their partners, other adult family members, friends, LGBTQ+ parent groups, and initiating therapy to help process such feelings. Attempting to process distressing feelings about LGBTQ+ identity with an LGBTQ+ child can be harmful for a child and places undue burden on them to emotionally hold or take care of their parents. This is, of course, distinct from having curiosity or asking questions about a child’s identity; such questions can be asked with respect and in the context of acceptance of who the child is. Questioning the child’s identity itself is not appropriate; rather, parents should ask their children what they could do to best support them within or outside the home.

In the context of COVID-19, it is possible that LGBTQ+ youth are having to interact with other family members in the home (e.g., grandparents, siblings) who are not supportive of them. In all situations, but especially given the increased amount of time children are spending at home and in the absence of school or social support, it is important that parents address these issues with other family members directly and ensure that respect and acceptance are embedded in the home environment by allmembers living in the home. This may necessitate educating the family member who is less supportive, either within the family or by inviting them to join LGBTQ+ community support groups (such as PFLAG). If the child or parent is engaged in psychotherapy, the therapist may also be able to meet with this family member, provide resources, and help emphasize the importance of creating a safe home environment for the youth. During COVID-19, LGBTQ+ youth should be encouraged to continue to engage with their support systems, via social media, virtual hangouts, and socially distant in-person encounters. Many schools continue to run their GSA meetings virtually and a number of organizations across the country have started virtual support groups or events for LGBTQ+ youth. 

Creating a safe and supportive home environment often involves bringing LGBTQ+ pride into the home. For younger children, parents can do this by including books and TV shows that include LGBTQ+ characters, by engaging in community activities (remote or socially distant) with other LGBTQ+ children and families, and by ensuring that positive stories about LGBTQ+ people in the media are discussed openly. However, older adolescents often have specific preferences about how they would like to celebrate their identity; for example, hanging the Transgender Pride Flag in their room or changing their appearance in some way. It is important to engage your child and ask specifically how they would like to celebrate their identity in the home or suggest some ideas and get their input. Many parents avoid these discussions and wait for their child to bring up these types of conversations. Unfortunately, this tactic often leads to continued silence and sends the message to the child that one is not comfortable discussing their identity. While it is important to respect your child if they tell you they do not want to talk about their identity, it is equally important to try to initiate conversations and indicate clearly that you are comfortable with such discussions whenever they are ready. Listening and allowing your child to direct you in how to be most supportive can be helpful in guiding these conversations and improving your relationship.

Below are additional resources that can be helpful for parents in their quest to best support their LGBTQ+ child. 

PFLAG: Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) is the largest organization connecting family, friends, and allies, through inclusive work and advocacy with the LGBTQ+ community. Resources provided include local chapters across the United States and information and support for individuals, families, and allies.

Human Rights Campaign: The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) inspires and engages individuals and communities and strives to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, aspiring towards a world that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all. 

Gender Spectrum: The team at Gender Spectrum aims to create a gender-inclusive world for all children. This organization provides support to parents and youth looking to connect professionals interested in learning best practices, faith leaders seeking resources, or anyone who wants up-to-date and accurate information about gender and youth.

GLSEN: The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) is an organization that works with schools to ensure safe learning environments and provides resources for inclusive LGBTQ+ training for teachers, parents, and community members. 

Family Equality: The mission of Family Equality is to advance legal and lived equality for LGBTQ+ families through building community and driving policy change. Through this link, you can find LGBTQ+ inclusive books for early elementary and middle school children, young adults, and parents and families.

The Columbia Gender Identity Program offers gender-affirming services to LGBTQ+ children and their families, including individual therapy, family therapy, and group therapy. We often work with parents and families to help them navigate how to best support their LGBTQ+ child. We aim to provide inclusive care and practice through a cultural lens, with an emphasis on intersectionality. Please check out our webpage for more information!