Depression in LGBTQ Youth Linked with Lack of Parental Support, Controlling Behavior

May 11, 2023 • by Esther Robards-Forbes

The study also found whether a young person was out to their parents mattered.

A pair of hands ties a rainbow ribbon on the wrist of another arm

Young people who identify as LGBTQ are less likely to suffer symptoms of depression when they have general support from their parents, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have found. But in cases where young LGBTQ people had not told their parents about their identity and also the parents exhibited psychologically controlling behavior, supportive parenting did not reduce symptoms linked to depression.

Attention to youth mental health has skyrocketed, since a major report from the Centers for Disease Control this spring found high levels of mental distress in young people, particularly LGBTQ youth. The Department of Health and Human Services declared earlier this month that the country is “facing an unprecedented mental health crisis.”

In the new study, published in March in the journal Child Development, researchers Amy McCurdy and Stephen Russell in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences examined data from youth aged 15-21 in three different cities in the United States. 

Among study participants, those who perceived their parents as being generally supportive had fewer reported depressive symptoms than those who perceived their parents as being less supportive.

The researchers also examined the effect of parental control on depressive symptoms in LGBTQ young people. Psychological control, as defined in the paper, includes attempts to intrude into the psychological and emotional development of the child, such as thinking processes, self-expression, emotions and attachment to parents. Study participants who perceived their parents as more controlling had more reported depressive symptoms than participants who perceived their parents as less controlling.

Participants were also asked if their parents knew about their LGBTQ identity, to explore the possibility that supportive and controlling parenting practices matter differently for youth, depending on parents’ knowledge of their identities. Results from the study showed that for youth whose parents did not know their LGBTQ identities, experiencing a combination of high psychological control and high social support from parents was linked with greater depressive symptoms.

“There were two surprising results from this study,” said McCurdy, a postdoctoral scholar at UT Austin. “First, that parent support and parent control were both influential in predicting youth depressive symptoms, and second, that the combined influence of parent support and control mattered most for LGBTQ youth who were not currently out to their parents.”

While most prior research on LGBTQ youth and their parents has focused on parental rejection or acceptance, this new study shows that general parenting practices matter for the wellbeing of LGBTQ young people. The study also shows that psychological control is a particularly important predictor of youth depressive symptoms yet psychological control is seldom studied among LGBTQ youth, researchers said. The findings also highlight the complexity of parenting experiences for LGBTQ youth, particularly those who may not be out to their parents.

“This new study is our attempt to bridge the gap between parenting research, much of which does not explicitly consider youth sexual identity, and research on LGBTQ youth populations, which focuses mainly on parenting practices specific to youth’s LGBTQ identities, such as family acceptance of a minoritized sexual identity,” McCurdy said. “We contend that general parenting practices matter for LGBTQ youth, too. This new research demonstrates the importance of general social support and control for LGBTQ youth in particular, and suggests that the efficacy or meaning of these general parenting practices may change based on whether youth are out to their parent(s) or not.”

Previous research, including by scientists at UT Austin, has found that LGBTQ young people are at higher risk of depression and suicide. They have set out to identify factors that affect rates of depression and suicide among LGBTQ youth and found that bullying of transgender youth is linked with increased suicidal thoughts and substance abuse. Another study found that when a transgender young person’s preferred name is used in different settings, such as work, school and home, they have lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts.

The research was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.