Professional Help: Tips for Parents of LGBT Kids on Preventing Suicide

Yes, it gets better. But research by clinical psychologist Brian Mustanski shows love and support from family can help in the meantime.

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LGBT or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender kids are at least twice as likely to attempt to take their own lives as their heterosexual peers.

The good news is that research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine offers a powerful and simple enough intervention: love. According to this groundbreaking longitudinal study on self-harm and suicide ideation, social support from family and friends protects gay children the most from thoughts of suicide.

This week on Professional Help, Brian Mustanski, that study's lead author and a psychologist at Northwestern University, shares five ways parents can show that they care and shield their gay children from suicide in the process.

Family acceptance is crucial. It's impossible to predict who will grow up to be LGBT, so it's important to demonstrate an acceptance of all sexual orientations in front of your children from a young age. If your child does come out to you remember that he's sharing a core part of his identity, so react with acceptance, not judgment. This lets him know that your love is unconditional and that you're available for support as he faces the trials of growing up as a minority. An example of an accepting response is, "You are still the same child as you were before you told me, and I love you just as much."

Supportive families are protective. If your child is struggling because of his sexual orientation -- say he's being called names at school -- make sure he knows he can share the experience with you. Empathize with your child and share your own stories of being teased and how you coped. Then, help your child figure out a possible solution and point out that there are other kids just like them. Sometimes, all children can see is the bad part so help him remember his strengths to put things in perspective. If you don't feel comfortable with your child's sexual orientation, don't lay that on him. Seek outside counseling and support.

Fight bullying in school. Our research shows that being bullied is a leading cause of having suicidal thoughts or making a suicide attempt. Unfortunately, 94 percent of LGBT children have suffered at least one experience of peer victimization because of their sexual orientation. To make all students safer, urge schools to adopt a comprehensive anti-bullying policy, to train staff to prevent bullying, and to support student efforts to reduce violence. Push them also to adopt age-appropriate, inclusive curricula to help students understand and respect differences within the school community and society as a whole.

Guide your gay child through romantic and sexual development. If you're heterosexual and feel ill-equipped to instruct your LGBT teen about relationships and sexuality, educate yourself. Find out who your child spends time with and talk about preventing unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS. Most medium-to-large cities also now have LGBT youth groups that provide safe-sex seminars and a safe outlet to meet other kids like them.

Take suicide seriously. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among American adolescents. Don't assume that your child is just trying to get attention if he talks about it. Warning signs for suicide actually include talking about wanting to die, looking for a means to die, talking about feeling hopeless, and withdrawing from others. If your kid displays any of these signs, don't leave him alone. Remove access to means for suicide, such as drugs or weapons, and make sure he gets help.

Image: Helder Almeida/Shutterstock.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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