Didn’t See That One Coming!

New study says that consistent parental support of their gay and lesbian children – whether positive or negative – is a key predictor for child’s mental health

For gay and lesbian children, consistent parental support – and that includes both positive as well as negative support – forecasts reduced risk of depression, anxiety, or substance use over time. The operative word here is “consistent.”

That’s according to a recent study, titled Relationship Between Parental Acceptance of Lesbian and Gay Children Over Time and Mental Health or Substance Abuse in Later Life, released at the American Psychiatric Association’s 2021 virtual Annual Meeting. While there are previous studies that looked at immediate or short term repercussions of parental approval vs. disapproval of a son or daughter’s sexual orientation, this investigation is the first to examine long term consequences.

The results were “interesting,” said study author Matthew Verdun, MS, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Psy.D., Applied Clinical Psychology, 2021. “When a person discloses their sexual orientation, it’s probably one of the most anxious times in their lives. It’s also when their rate of wellbeing is lowest. There’s a lot of research out there that says positive parental support at that moment relates to better mental health outcomes for the child. I wanted to know what would happen over time if a parent was supportive or rejecting at that moment.”

And Verdun had a strong hypothesis when the study began. He expected to find two distinct groups of children with the best mental health outcomes, those who received consistent parent support and those whose parents grew more supportive over time. A third group, those whose parents consistently disapproved of their child’s sexual orientation, Verdun thought would have the poorest mental health outcome.

“Interestingly, we found that those whose parents vacillated between being accepting and rejecting actually had significantly more mental health problems over time than people whose parents were consistently accepting or consistently rejecting,” Verdun said, emphasizing that consistency in attitude seems to be equally as important as positivity toward their child’s sexual orientation.

Why would a parent’s changing perspective and eventual positive support actually play out as a negative for their child’s mental health? How could negative support rank right up there with positive support? 

Decisive answers to these questions will need to come from future studies. That said, during a 2021 virtual Annual Meeting APA press conference, Verdun did take an educated guess. He suggested that consistently unsupportive, disapproving parents might ultimately nudge a child to seek support elsewhere, perhaps from a school resource, peers, other family members, or a community group. Also, vacillating parents may just cause little more than confusion along with a much deeper pit of mental health challenges.

The Method and Results

For this study, 175 adult cisgender gay and lesbian participants (cismale = 77, cisfemale = 98) were recruited via social media, with each participant asked to complete a demographic survey, questions about their parents’ initial and current level of support regarding the participant’s sexual orientation, a PHQ-9 questionnaire, and a GAD-7 questionnaire. Based on responses, participants were placed into one of three groups:

  • Parents consistently positive
  • Parents negative to positive
  • Parents consistently negative

About 70% of participants were white, 9% were Black, 11% Latinx, and 3% Asian. Almost 90% had at least some college education.

The majority of participants (84) reported consistently positive support from their parents. Of the remaining participants, 50 reported consistently negative parental support and 41 had parents who went from negative to positive support.

According to GAD-7 questionnaire results:

  • Study participants who consistently received positive parental support had an average anxiety score of 5.79 (mild anxiety)
  • Those who consistently received negative parental support averaged 6.22 (mild anxiety)
  • Those whose parents went from negative to positive support showed the most harmful consequences, with an average score of 10.37, indicating moderate anxiety

Turning to the PHQ questionnaire:

  • Study participants who consistently received positive parental support had average depression scores of 7.3.8 (mild depression)
  • Those who received consistently negative parental support averaged 8.20 (mild depression)
  • Those whose parents went from negative to positive support again had the most harmful consequences, with an average score of 12.88 (moderate depression)

As for how these insights might be best applied, Verdun suggests that the study data may help mental health professionals working with gay and lesbian people understand how support impacts them, better identify supports, and build resilience factors to support improved mental health outcomes. In addition, the study conclusion hypothesizes that these findings could help future researchers identify how the protective factor of parental consistency and mental health or substance abuse treatment interact.