What will they do if they know? Will they hate me?
Imagine for a moment that you are 14 years old. You've survived the first three weeks of your freshman year of high school. At this point you've successfully determined the shortest route across the enormous, new-to-you school building. After a few mishaps, you've learned what you can get away with, and with which teachers. The most pressing questions persist, however. Your heart pounds each day as you walk into the loud, crowded cafeteria. Your mind races: “Where should I sit? Who can I talk to?” Your hands sweat and your voice shakes as you attempt to join a conversation in the hallway. You anxiously wonder, “Do these people like me? Is there anything about me to even like?”
Now imagine that you are a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) teen. You now ask yourself, “What will they do if they know? Will they hate me?”
Being a teenager is challenging. The question "Who am I?" is particularly pertinent during this time in life. Forming a distinct sense of self—also known as identity formation—is the critical developmental task that occurs during adolescence. The great paradox of adolescence is that as teens strive to establish their own unique identity, they also experience an increased desire to "fit in."
Identity formation can be especially challenging for teens who feel different because of their sexual or gender identity. LGBTQ adolescents have the same basic needs as other youth: development of self-esteem, identity and intimacy; social and emotional well-being; and physical health. But LGBTQ adolescents are especially vulnerable to not having their basic needs met. They may feel different from their peers and unsure of how their friends and family will react to their sexual orientation or gender expression. Parental and/or peer rejection can cause extraordinary stress, which may be linked to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor academic performance, increased drug use and risky sexual behavior. LGBTQ teens often lack supportive outlets for exploring their identity and for openly talking about their concerns.
Human Rights Campaign (HRC) recently conducted a survey of more than 10,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13-17 across the country. The results point to significant disparities between LGBTQ-identified young people and non-LGBTQ teens, particularly when looking at themes of happiness and belonging. Compared with their non-LGBTQ peers, LGBTQ youth reported much lower levels of happiness, a higher incidence of alcohol and drug use and less of a connection to adult support during personal problems. When survey participants were asked, "What is the most difficult problem facing you these days?" non-LGBTQ youth answered with: "getting good grades," "getting into college" and "finding a job." Young LGBTQ individuals, however, overwhelmingly identified their biggest problems as "not getting rejected by family for coming out," "trouble at school," "the struggle to find acceptance" and "depression/self-harm/eating disorder." These are enormous burdens LGBTQ youth are often shouldering alone.
Adult support plays a crucial role in identity formation and well-being for all young people, including LGBTQ youth. Here are some ways that, as adults, we can support the young LGBTQ individuals in our lives:
- Engage with them. Ask questions, listen, empathize and just be there.
- Educate yourself. Challenge yourself to learn and go beyond stereotyped images of LGBTQ individuals.
- Know what resources are available in your community. Two great local organizations are SOJOURN and JustUsATL.
- Help a young person get the support he or she needs. Learn more about JF&CS’ therapy group for LGBTQ teens.
Remember, being a teenager isn’t easy for anyone. And it can be especially hard for LGBTQ teens. Whether as a parent, educator or caring community member, we can all play a role in supporting LGBTQ teens.
Do you know a young person who identifies as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning)? Is he or she struggling with identity concerns, coming out, family conflict or relationship issues? Or maybe she/he is experiencing anxiety or depression and would benefit from the support of others. He or she can benefit from an affirming place to talk about experiences.
JF&CS is facilitating a therapy group for LGBTQ teens of all faiths between the ages of 13-17 yrs old. The group will meet every other Wednesday from 6p.m. – 7:15 p.m. at JF&CS in Dunwoody. The fee is $10 per session. Contact Alicia Simoni, MA, LMSW, for more information and to schedule a required individual pre-meeting at firstname.lastname@example.org or 770.677.9417.