Being stuck in close quarters with family can be stressful for any kid. But for some children, teens, and young adults, staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic can be fraught with even more anxiety. With schools closed and social distancing in effect, LGBTQ+ kids may experience a loss of community. Gender-diverse youth may experience increased stress and dysphoria if planned gender-affirming procedures are delayed. And some LGBTQ+ kids and teens may find themselves feeling forced back into the closet if they live with unsupportive family members.
The stress of the pandemic can be amplified in LGBTQ+ kids who are already experiencing additional stressors, like racism, xenophobia, and food insecurity, explains Sabra L. Katz-Wise, PhD, co-director of the Harvard SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression) Health Equity Research Collaborative at Boston Children’s and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
How to support your child
The possible consequences are troubling: If youth don’t feel supported at home — or are subject to abuse — they may find themselves without a safe place to live. Indeed, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated one in four homeless LGBTQ+ young people had been forced from their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. That can lead to an increased risk of sexual assault, harassment, and even COVID-19.
At the same time, studies suggest that family acceptance of LGBTQ+ youth helps protect against depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide, and is associated with better health and self-esteem. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial for families to provide a supportive environment. For more insight, we spoke with Williams and Katz-Wise. Here’s what they want families to know.
Show your love. “One of the biggest things families can do to support their kids is to show them unconditional love and affirmation,” says Williams. “Telling them that you love them no matter what helps foster resiliency, which is of the utmost importance, especially now.”
Keep communication open. Even the most supportive of parents can make mistakes. That includes microaggressions, the subtle slights and insults that members of marginalized or stigmatized groups experience regularly. Microaggressions aren’t always intentional: They can include things like forgetting to call your child by their affirmed name or pronouns, for example. “If you mis-gender your child, acknowledge your mistake, apologize, and affirm your support,” says Williams. And don’t shut down. “It’s important to keep the lines of communication open for the whole family,” says Katz-Wise.
Understand the importance of community. “Having a supportive community is huge for LGBTQ+ kids,” says Williams. For many young people, that community includes their chosen family, made up of friends and allies. With social distancing in effect, access to that community has been curtailed. Encourage your child to connect with friends and support groups online or by video chat when possible.
Offer reassurance. One of the most stressful aspects of the pandemic is the uncertainty surrounding it. That’s especially a problem for gender-diverse patients who have had gender-affirming procedures put on hold — the delay can feel like one more sign that their care isn’t necessary. Nothing could be further from the truth at Boston Children’s, says Williams. “We want our patients to know that there are people at the hospital working really hard to ensure that we will continue to provide gender-affirming care.”
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