The teen, talking to me from her home, appears equal parts cozy (soft hoodie, low lighting) and stressed (she has the wide-eyed just got off Zoom school look that most teens have these days). Piles of books and papers are strewn about her. She lifts up a tome with “SAT PREP” written across the cover and grimaces, “This is next.”
We talk about the arc of the pandemic so far, from the early lockdowns to the carefully executed return to hybrid schooling this spring. She considers herself one of the lucky ones. She has a supportive family and she attends a small independent school for girls, where talking about equity is the norm. But even with the parental support and good education, the struggle is different for her than it is for straight teens.
It’s no big secret that teens endured a fair amount of hardship from an academic, emotional, and social standpoint during the pandemic, but one group of teens, in particular, struggled more than others. LGBTQ youth experienced increased stress, anxiety and depression throughout the lockdowns, with loneliness and lack of social connections contributing to deteriorating mental health.
Cheryl Eskin, program director of TEEN Line, reports an increase in requests for support from LGBTQ youth since the pandemic began. “We have had a 22 percent increase in contacts from LGBTQ youth during the pandemic, compared to the same time period last year,” she says. “Conflict in family relationships, anxiety, and depression are the main reasons these youth reach out.”
When schools closed down, and even reopened in a hybrid model, many teens felt isolated. Indeed, a common concern I hear among LGBTQ youth is not just that their parents don’t understand them, but that they fear that their parents won’t understand them. They feel like their parents aren’t making the effort to really get to know them. Their peers, on the other hand, do.
Results of a recent poll of 1,200 LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ youth conducted by the Trevor Project found that three-fourths of respondents indicated feeling increased loneliness since the pandemic began, with 55 percent reporting increased anxiety and 53 percent reporting increased symptoms of depression. Nearly 1 in 4 LGBTQ youth said they were unable to access mental health care during the pandemic.
The 17-year-old who agreed to speak with me if I didn’t use her name tells me that there have been pros and cons to so much time at home. She strengthened her connections with her family members, but she also felt disconnected from her peers. Though texting and social media apps provide surface-level connections for teens, many LGBTQ teens rely on their friendships and face-to-face contact for support and understanding. “There’s been a decline in my mental health,” she says. “You don’t realize how dependent you are on connections and until it’s all through a phone you don’t have it in person anymore.”
Amit Paley, chief executive and executive director of the Trevor Project, identifies parent support and expressions of love and acceptance as essential to the emotional health of LGBTQ kids. “Research shows young people who feel accepted for who they are experience positive outcomes and a lower risk for suicide,” says Paley. “Having just one accepting adult reduces risk of suicide by 40 percent."
The loneliness during the pandemic among LGBTQ teens is felt not just at home, but also in college. A 19-year-old college freshman, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, calls from his dorm room, where he spends most of his time alone and isolated. Raised in a small town in Massachusetts, he now attends a large public university in New England. His voice exudes excitement when we connect, and he readily admits that, even though he doesn’t know me, he looked forward to the call because it meant a connection with someone new.
He tells me that he knew this college was right for him the moment he stepped on campus for a tour, “I saw so many people like me here, I felt like this was home.” Growing up in a small town, he often felt like an outlier. In his graduating class of about 200 students, there wasn’t a large LGBTQ community, “I was the first one in my high school class to be openly gay,” he explains. “By the time I graduated there were three or four of us.” He reflects on the difficulty of finding people who truly understood him. Though he had a solid core group of supportive peers, it still felt lonely at times.
College, he hoped, would offer more support. His dreams of finding a vibrant LGBTQ community on campus, however, have not yet come to fruition. “I’ve never felt more lonely,” he shares, “I don’t have any in-person classes anymore. I’m in my dorm room by myself all day every day.” When I ask him about accessing mental health services on campus to cope with his feelings of isolation, he heaves a deep sigh. “Virtual mental health services are impossible to get because of long waits,” he explains, “And if other students need it more than I do, I can understand that.”
Sadly, these are not isolated incidents for LGBTQ youth right now.
Mimi Hoang clinical supervisor of the LGBTQIA+ Affirmative Counseling Center at Airport Marina Counseling Service in Los Angeles, echoes the importance of support from parents. “Parents should treat their LGBTQ+ and questioning teens with complete acceptance and unconditional love, even if they don’t truly understand what it’s like,” advises Hoang.
When parents build strong bonds with their LGBTQ kids, they create a safe and loving home environment and their kids know where to turn for help. “If their teen is experiencing bullying or harassment,” cautions Hoang, “parents need to take a stance in aligning with their child and advocating for their child’s safety and security.”
Every teen I spoke to told me that parent support played a huge role in navigating their daily lives, both during the pandemic and before it began. A 16-year-old junior at a large public high school in West Hartford, Conn., repeatedly expressed his gratitude for his parents. “My parents stand up for me. They watch my shows with me. They want to hear my stance on issues and my problems,” he explained. Perhaps most importantly, “They don’t reject me.”
Here are steps parents can take to support their LGBTQ kids:
Practice empathic listening
Replacing judgment with curiosity and listening more than you speak are two ways to open the door to honest communication with your teens. Your teens want to connect with you and share their struggles, but they might fear judgment or being dismissed.
It’s also important to do regular mental health checks. “Make sure you are checking in on how your children are feeling,” suggests Paley. “Do not shy away from asking about mental health and suicide, especially if you see red flags. Checking in with them helps them feel heard and understood.”
It’s not your child’s job to teach you everything you need to know about the LGBTQ community. Take the time to do some research on your own. The Trevor Project offers educational resources for parents. Hoang recommends picking up a copy of Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting your LGBTQ Child by Telaina Eriksen.
A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that teens identified parents using their affirmed name or pronouns as supportive. This can feel like a big transition to parents, but it will get easier over time. Practice in the mirror and with close friends until you no longer have to correct yourself.
For some LGBTQ youth, school functions as a place where they connect with other youth who respect and embrace their identities and use their correct pronouns. Creating a culture of empathy in schools also helps promote the mental health of LGBTQ teens. “Schools play an important role in an LGBTQ+ teen’s life because their home life might not be affirming,” says Hoang.
Focus on representation.
Teens can only truly experience belonging when they see themselves represented in the community, and parents can help to advocate for that. “Having representation is important,” says Paley. “LGBTQ students need to feel seen in the curriculum and in faculty, teachers, and administration so they can see the possibilities for their lives.”
Eskin recommends identifying classrooms and Zoom rooms as “safe places” by using LGBTQ friendly stickers and backgrounds. Gay-Straight Alliance clubs and having supportive policies and procedures in place to address correct usage of names and pronouns and reporting any harassment or bullying that might occur are essential.
Learn about intersectionality, identities and suicide.
Teens tell me that their peers are supportive of them and more understanding about LGBTQ identities, but the adults in their lives need some work. When the adults in their lives know how to help, teens feel secure.
Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent mental health expert, and the author of the several books, including “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls,” and The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. You can find her on Twitter and on her website, Practical Parenting.