Family and Caregiver Support for LGBTQ youth

Learn more about why support is so important and how to support LGBTQ children and youth 


Families want the best for their children. [See the Family Acceptance Project.] The struggle to know how to be supportive is most difficult in times of conflict. When foster parents and caregivers can’t accept a young person’s identity, the results are often devastating. The strategy to reject a young person for identifying as LGBTQ is a lose-lose proposition. When children conform to an adult’s idea of who they are, they are forced to deny their own sense of self. If a young person refuses to comply and is rejected, the relationship is broken and the young person’s home becomes precarious or even dangerous. 

It’s important to remember that being LGBTQ is not a choice or a phase. This has been long accepted by leading mental health and child welfare associations. No one should ever be subjected to pressure to change who they are in sexual orientation or gender.

 You can’t fake being an ally. You have to be out there all of the time. You never know who is watching.

Afraid to tell...

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) children and youth in care often fear disclosing their sexual orientation and gender identity. [MCYS Survey.  Serving LGBTQ2S Children and Youth: A Resource Guide for Child Welfare Staff and Caregivers.]  When they do disclose, rejection, discrimination and violence can follow. The no-win consequences of staying invisible or ‘coming out’ are profound.

They often experience:

  • Difficulty finding a “safe” person with whom to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity;
  • Hostility, harassment or violence from other children and youth in group settings;
  • Punishment for engaging in age-appropriate conduct that might be accepted between youth of different sexes;
  • Reluctance on the part of families and adults to include an LGBTQ youth in their lives (e.g., through adoption or legal custody);
  • Child welfare providers and caregivers often lack awareness of the needs of LGBTQ youth and the community resources available to support them;
  • Reluctance on the part of LGBTQ youth to develop lasting relationships or to access services, due to their experiences with stigma and exclusion.

Disclosure is a process

Young people who are tired of concealing their identity and who want to be open about who they are in relationships with others look for the people they can trust. The process of disclosure begins first with the acknowledgement of feelings to oneself. Next, youth are most likely to share with trusted friends or family members. [Block, Rebecca, Matthews, John. (2006) Meeting the Needs of GLB Youth in Residential Care Settings: A Framework for Assessing the Unique Needs of a Vulnerable Population.]

The decision to tell a foster parent or worker can begin with subtle statements to check the kind of response they get back. Youth listen carefully for how others speak about issues, listening for cues that tell them about the other person’s attitudes and beliefs, determining if the person is safe for them to come out to. The decision to keep their identity hidden may result in greater feelings of safety but to remain invisible feeds the negative sense of self and limits the potential for supports that might help.

Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.

Audre Lorde

Disclosure in a supportive environment can contribute to better mental health as youth acquire resources and supports to help them integrate identities. Having interactive workers and foster parents who are good communicators and who make an effort to educate themselves about a child’s identity are associated with better health and mental health outcomes as children develop.[Grace, Andre. (2015) Growing into Resilience: Sexual and Gender Minority in Canada.]

When children brave disclosure, it is an invitation to match the act with courage, commitment, love and support. Family acceptance in adolescence is associated with young adult positive health outcomes such as self-esteem, social support, and general health, and is protective for negative health outcomes such as depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation and attempts.[Caitlin R. et al, (2010).  Family Acceptance in Adolescence and the Health of LGBT Young Adults, 23 J. Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing]

Child welfare practitioners should be prepared to advocate for LGBTQ youth in their schools, housing, and places of employment, especially when they experience discrimination and harassment. They should also help LGBTQ youth develop strategies for resolving these conflicts and advocating for themselves in productive ways before problems occur. Too often, non-conforming youth feel unsupported and as though they have no other choice but to quit their schools or jobs or leave their housing when faced with anti-LGBTQ treatment, leaving them vulnerable to poverty, homelessness, and instability.[Child Welfare League of America & Lambda Legal (2006). Out of the Margins. A Report on Regional Listening Forums Highlighting the Experiences of LGBTQ Youth in Care.]

Family Support

Families want the best for their children. The struggle to know how to support your child best is most difficult in times of conflict. When parents cannot accept a young person’s sense of identity, the results are devastating.  The conflict of whether or not to accept and affirm an LGBTQ young person is always a lose-lose proposition. If the child conforms to a parent’s idea of who they are, they are forced to deny their own sense of self. If the child refuses to comply and the parent rejects them, the relationship is broken and the young person’s home becomes precarious or even dangerous.  It’s important to remember that being LGBTQ is not a choice or a phase. This has been long accepted by leading mental health and child welfare associations. A young person should never be subjected to pressure to change who they are in orientation or gender.

Link Concerns with Reasons to Support

You don’t have to give up your beliefs or concerns to support someone. There is an urgency however to find strategies that allow the relationship to continue and grow. Naming and then pairing concern with reasons to support is a strategy to address intolerance, fear and judgment with respect to non-conforming children and youth.

Pair your concerns with reasons to support:

My concern: I want my child to be normal and to have a normal life.

Reasons to support: Investing yourself in a child’s positive development will also help to expand your sense of what is normal. The new normal includes diversity of gender and sexuality.

My concern: I am worried that my child will not be accepted.

Reasons to support: Your child will be better prepared to deal with adversity with your support.

My concern: My faith tells me that my child will be punished for being gay.

Reasons to support: Insisting that an LGBTIQ child has to deny who they are is a form of punishment that has lasting health and mental health impacts.

My concern: My is child is too young to know themselves.

Reasons to support: Trust that whatever definition your child is using, it is true for them now. Yes, the definitions may change as your child develops.

My concern: What about morality? Isn’t it up to me to teach my child morality?

Reasons to support: Gender identity and sexual orientation are not moral issues. You can teach your child to be a kind and loving person best by modelling it.

My concern: I believe it is a sin to deviate from traditional male-female genders.

Reasons to support: Viewing your child as a sinner reinforces the negative stereotypes that cause harm. You can seek support for yourself to help reconcile your religious beliefs and your commitment to your child.

My concern: If I accept my child as LGBTIQ, I am condoning their choices.

Reasons to support: You can support your child as a human being and disagree with their choices. Both can be true at the same time. Withholding support is not an effective way to make a point and worse, it causes harm.

My concern: Why can’t we teach abstinence?

Reasons to support: You can. You just can’t impose it.

Affirm Resilience

Oppression occurs when there are beliefs, prejudices and practices that benefit some groups of people over others. These benefits are not earned. They are simply based on who someone is – their identity. Oppression can be deliberate or unintentional.

Out and Proud

Out and Proud is a set of guidelines created by the Toronto Children’s Aid Society for parents and caregivers to support the development of resiliency in LGBTQ children and youth.[Adapted from Out and Proud Affirmation Guidelines, Lorraine Gale, Toronto CAS]

  • Build self-esteem, self-respect, confidence and pride.
  • Affirm young people for who they are
  • Talk about discrimination so that LGBTIQ children and youth understand that they are not the problem
  • Develop the ability to assess situations for safety and to know how to a make safety plan
  • Help children learn to listen their inner voice and to ‘trust their gut’
  • Support them to learn the balance between self-expression and the need for safety
  • Promote self-protection skills and strategies
  • Teach young people to reach out for help when they experience harassment or violence
  • Support children and youth to develop the flexibility, hardiness and strength of spirit to stay positive and move forward
  • Support young people to advocate for themselves and for system change

My dream is to live in a family that will accept me and where I can just be a kid.                                          

 Youth in Care

Further Reading & Resources