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Research Review

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Teens Find Wider Family Support

The number of lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) teens who come out to family and friends has grown dramatically in the past two decades, says Guy Shilo, PhD, of Tel Aviv University’s Bob Shapell School of Social Work. In 1991, the average coming-out age was 25. But as of 2010, he notes, it is 16 years old.

In a new study published in Family Relations on the stress factors and the mental health of sexual minorities, Shilo observes that family support and acceptance is becoming increasingly essential for LGB youths. "Family support is a crucial variable in the mental health of young LGBs, higher than peer support," says Shilo, who notes that it is difficult for a LGB teen to separate themselves from unsupportive families because they are still dependent on that family for their welfare.

The researchers conducted a study of 461 self-identified LGB youths, aged 16-23, to examine how stress related to being part of a minority group was impacting their mental health. To determine stress levels, the researchers investigated how participants felt about their family, friends and peer support, as well as their connection to the LGB community as an emotional support. Participants were evaluated for mental distress and feelings of well-being.

While peer support impacted the mental health of participants, researchers discovered that family support was more central to their sense of well-being. A lack of family support was found to significantly heighten mental distress among the study participants. In addition, researchers found that family acceptance had the strongest positive impact on self-acceptance of sexual orientation.

Adult LGBs who lack the support of their families, explains Shilo, often react by leaving their families behind. They build separate lives which can include families of choice, where peer groups, mainly from the LGB community, form an alternative family structure give each other the same emotional support and sense of belonging that a family is meant to provide. But this is not always a viable option at a younger age.

Today, more adolescents are open about their sexual orientation, and the younger they are, the more important family connections tend to be. The average 16-year-old is still in school and depends on family for financial support, food and shelter. "They can't just get up and go," Shilo says.

— Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University