Parent Responses to Their LGB Child

In its comprehensive review of the literature on lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) health, the Institute of Medicine recently concluded that there was clear scientific evidence indicating that LGB adolescents are at greater risk for depression and attempting suicide.  Because of the stigma that homosexuality still carries in modern society, LGB youth are subjected to varied forms of mistreatment, all of which create a stressful experience with the potential to harm health.

Research has begun to highlight the important role that family responses play in shaping the health of LGB adolescents.  In one study, researchers found that LGB young adults ages 21-25 who reported that their families were highly rejecting of their sexuality during their teenage years were roughly eight times more likely to report having attempted suicide, three times more likely to have tried illegal drugs, and twice as likely to have engaged in recent unprotected intercourse, relative to youth from families who were less rejecting.

Despite the profound impact that parent responses have on a child’s health, we know relatively little about how parents themselves experience the news that they have an LGB child, and interventions to support and guide parents who have an LGB child are limited.

How do parents respond to the news that they have an LGB child?

Research on parents of LGB youth is comprised largely of a handful of studies. Recurrent themes in the literature show that initial reactions to the news are characterized by intense emotionality (shock, denial, fear, sadness, guilt, and confusion) that can last for months and possibly years.

In moments immediately after disclosure, parents often report being unable to think of anything else, and may disengage from their normal social networks, increasing their sense of isolation.  As the initial shock dissipates, many parents also report feelings of loss surrounding their hopes and dreams for their child’s future, including marriage and beliefs that children and grandchildren are no longer in their child’s future. Feelings of guilt or regret are also common among parents who express concern that they did something wrong and somehow caused their child to become gay or lesbian.

In the next phases of adjustment, parents often experience increased stress or anxiety deciding how, and to whom, they should disclose their child’s sexuality, including to friends and family. It is common for parents to report an increased desire to learn about homosexuality and LGB culture. Many read books, search online sources, and increase contact with LGB individuals and communities.

Parents who ultimately come to support their child’s sexuality sometimes report that they have to undergo their own changes in spiritual or political affiliation. Often, supportive parents became more vocal proponents of pro-LGB policies, and may publically challenge others who speak or act in a homophobic way.  In general, supportive parents commonly state that post-disclosure, they are closer to their children and enjoy improved family functioning, including greater communication, understanding of roles, and deepened connection with family members.

Unfortunately, the path to acceptance is long in many families. Our research suggests that parents who have known about their child’s sexual orientation for a full year do not report that having an LGB child is any easier than parents who have known for just a week or two. These findings point to the need for interventions to support parents and families during this adjustment period and to provide guidance that might help reduce the occurrence of rejecting behaviors.

Resources for Parents

  • Lead with Love: A film-based intervention for families: This 35-minute documentary entitled Lead with Love is available for anyone to view free online: The objectives of the film are to provide comfort, information, and behavioral guidance to parents of LGB adolescents and young adults (age 25 and under), with the goal of reducing rejecting behaviors and increasing positive family interaction.
  • Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG): PFLAG chapters around the country offer support to parents and families who might be struggling with the news that they have an LGBT child. They also provide education about LGBT issues to families and communities more broadly, and serve as a vehicle through which interested families and allies can engage in activism to promote LGBT rights.
  • The Family Acceptance Project (FAP): The FAP is an initiative based at San Francisco State University that is seeking to develop evidence-based resources to help ethnically, socially, and religiously diverse families be more supportive of LGBT youth.

David M. Huebner, PhD, MPH

Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Utah.
Member of the National Board of Directors of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN)