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When Queer Kids Come Out, Surprised Parents Struggle for Years

For many parents, the initial shock of finding out their children are gay, lesbian, or bisexual takes years to wear off.

Many parents struggle to accept their children’s sexual orientation after they come out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. New research reveals that the path to acceptance looks similar for most of these parents, in that it takes time — lots of time. Two years after a parent finds out about their child’s sexual orientation, most still struggle with the news as if they had just found out. 

The findings, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, surprised and worried researchers since this two-year time period was longer than expected and comes with significant tolls. LGBT youth are at an increased risk for mental and physical health problems as well as higher rates of homelessness, parental abuse, substance abuse, depression, and suicide. There’s evidence that these risks can be mitigated by parental acceptance — or made much worse by a lack thereof. 

For the study, David Huebner, an associate professor of prevention and community health at George Washington University, and his team surveyed 1,195 moms and dads with gay, lesbian, or bisexual children between the ages of 10 and 25. They asked about themselves, their children, and any difficulties they experienced accepting their kids. About a quarter of parents had just learned about their child’s sexual orientation within the past month. Specifically, parents were asked, “How hard is it for you, knowing that your son or daughter is gay, lesbian, or bisexual?” on a five-point scale, with five being extremely hard.

No matter if parents had learned that month or two years earlier, data indicated that moms and dads were generally bad at accepting their children as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Parents of older children struggled more than parents of younger children, and African American and Latino parents reported having a harder time dealing with their kids’ orientation as well. Mothers and fathers experienced comparable levels of difficulty with acceptance of sons and daughters equally. The good news is that this difficulty appears to go down within five years for most parents.

Still, Huebner warns, “Two years is a very long time in the life of a child who is faced with the stress of a disapproving or rejecting parent.” In other words, this period of struggle can have long-lasting implications for the parent-child relationship. 

Many of these parents struggle with acceptance for a number of different self-reported reasons. Some cite the initial shock taking longer to wear off than expected, whereas other parents express anxieties about their children being bullied or marginalized. But what all these parents had in common was that they expressed love for their children and eventually came around. Huebner recommends that future studies examine exactly how to speed up that process in order to help kids stay connected to their families and lead happier and healthier lives. 

“Our results suggest interventions to speed up the adjustment process would help not only the parents but also their children,” Huebner said. “LGB youth with accepting families are more likely to thrive as they enter adulthood.”