Study: Many Parents Take Time to Adjust After Learning a Child is Gay, Bisexual or Lesbian

The Milken Institute SPH study said parents may worry their child will face bullying or harassment.

June 27, 2019

Two years after their child comes out as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB), many parents still say it is “moderately” or “very hard” for them to adjust to the news, according to a new study from the Milken Institute School of Public Health. Those responses are the same, on average, as parents who have recently learned about their child’s sexual orientation. 

The results are significant because previous studies suggest parents who have trouble adjusting are more likely to disapprove or adopt negative behaviors that can put LGB youth at risk of serious health problems, the researchers said.

“Surprisingly, we found that parents who knew about a child’s sexual orientation for two years struggled as much as parents who had recently learned the news,” said David Huebner, associate professor of prevention and community health at Milken Institute SPH. “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.”

This study is one of the first and largest to survey parents themselves. The study also includes data from parents rarely ever studied, Dr. Huebner said, noting that 26 percent of the parents surveyed had only learned their child identifies as LGB in the past month.

Dr. Huebner and his colleagues studied more than 1,200 parents of LGB youth ages 10 to 25. The researchers asked parents who visited a website with LGB resources to fill out a questionnaire.

Additional findings included:

  • African-American and Latino parents reported greater trouble adjusting compared to white parents.
  • Parents of older youth said they had greater levels of difficulty compared to parents of younger children.
  • Fathers and mothers reported similar levels of difficulty, as did parents of both boys and girls.

Parents who have trouble accepting the news may worry that their child will face a more difficult life that includes bullying or harassment. Others need time to adjust because they have long imagined a traditional heterosexual future for their child, Dr. Huebner said. 

Parents in this study who had known for five years or longer reported having the least amount of trouble with the fact that their child is LGB, the study found.

Dr. Huebner’s research and other studies suggest parent disapproval or rejection puts the child at high risk of depression, suicide, substance abuse and other health risks.

Still, Dr. Huebner says most parents, even those in shock when first learning the news, eventually do adjust.

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

Dr. Huebner and his team created a website, Lead With Love, that contains evidence-based resources for families to help support parents who have just learned about a child’s LGB orientation.

The researchers also said much more needs to be done. This study examined parents and their reaction at one particular moment, but additional research must be done that follows parents and children to see how the relationship changes over the following months and years. Such studies could help researchers develop better support for families that would help keep the relationship between parents and children healthy and strong.

The study, “Effects of Family Demographics and the Passage of Time on Parents’ Difficulty with Their Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual Youth’s Sexual Orientation,” was published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. The National Institute of Mental Health funded the study.


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