Supporting LGBTQI+ Youth in Their Identity Formation
Article by: Dr. Sandra Clavelli, Allendale Director of Outpatient & Clinical Services
Pride month can bring up many different reactions and questions about the best way to support LGBTQI+ youth. One question may even be about the acronym itself: it stands for Lesbian, Gay, Transgendered, Questioning, Intersexed and more. Pride month celebrates the unique and shared experiences for this group of people, and adults may wonder how to best support young people on their journey. There is a lot of stigma, marginalization, and shame that comes with someone being “out” to others. When we know that someone is facing that stigma, we may have many reactions and not know how to best respond.
One thing to keep in mind is that LGBTQI+ youth are more likely to experience isolation, rejection, marginalization, depression, self-harm, and suicidality than their peers. Each of us can minimize these things by focusing on connection and ways to support individuals we interact with. When a youth comes out to us, they are taking a risk – a risk of being rejected, of being outcast, bullied, or shamed. How we handle that moment can help them on a path of self-hate or a path of self-confidence and resiliency. We can help to minimize the number of youth who experience bullying, marginalization, depression, and suicidality if we focus on the PERSON as a whole rather than on whether they are LGBTQI+.
For LGBTQI+ youth, telling people about being LGBTQI+, having people find out that they are LGBTQI+, or living in an area that feels unwelcoming, as well as many other factors, can create stress. Parents and others interacting with the youth often have a lot of questions about how to best support youth through these challenges in order to minimize any potential mental health issues that may arise. How are we supposed to address maladaptive behaviors without adding to any mental health struggles? If we give them consequences for yelling at us about how we don’t understand them, will it contribute to depression? Will it seem like we are shaming them? What about if they are taking risks with their sexual behaviors? How can we address those without adding to any marginalization?
Fortunately, the answers are often found in what we have already been doing – caring about them/staying connected and being a strong adult in their life by helping them understand limits through the use of structure. When we are able to find this balance, we are able to support them in the best ways for THEM. Each youth will have unique needs, and PAUSING to listen to them, hear their perspective and continue to connect with them as we always have will show them that their coming out to us doesn’t change how we care about them. However, we want to balance that with continuing to set limits regarding rules that have been in place – whether it is not yelling at their parent, dress code, or consequences for risky behaviors. This helps them see that we care enough to continue to hold them accountable. This balance is important for all relationships, but it is also very helpful in increasing connection, which has been shown to help minimize risk of depression/self-harm/suicidality for LGBTQI+ youth. The youth learns that they can come to us and feel heard while also knowing we are going to set limits to help them learn to navigate the world. The trick is to continue to give consequences without making it personal or about WHO they are, but about WHAT they did. This helps minimize any shame about themselves that may lead to mental health concerns.
Another factor that can help LGBTQI+ youth build resiliency and confidence is access to resources and community. If their behavior has become more isolated or turned to self-harm or depression, it may be helpful to reach out to a therapist – not because there is something WRONG with them, but because they have challenges others may not face and that a therapist can be helpful in figuring out how to navigate those challenges. If they are seeking out more connection, it may help to have them reach out to their school, as many have clubs that seek to provide a place for LGBTQI+ youth and their allies to connect. Additionally, there are many online resources that can be a support network for them – though it is often helpful to research them ahead of time to make sure they are appropriate for youth! By helping youth feel connected, we can build their confidence and help them truly find pride in who they are.
Wilson & Cariola (2018). LGBTQI+ Youth and Mental Health: A Systematic Review of Qualitative Research. Adolescent Research Review (2020) 5:187-211.