As concerned parents, the disturbing increase in gay bullying and youth suicides associated with homophobic bullying may have you worried about depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors in your own child or teen.
What Is Gay Bullying?
Bullying, in general, is broadly defined as being repeatedly exposed over time to the intentional negative actions of one or more people. These negative actions are typically direct insults, threats, or physical violence. Cyberbullying, a form of indirect bullying, may also occur. This is when a bully harasses someone anonymously online.
Gay bullying is typically directed at youths who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT) or who are questioning their sexual identity. In addition to the common forms of bullying, gay bullying may also include sexual harassment and assault.
Some research sadly indicates that more than 80% of LGBT people have reported experiencing homophobic bullying in their lifetime.
The Effects of Gay Bullying
There is a range of consequences associated with bullying in general, which may include negative impact on self-esteem, feelings of isolation, symptoms of depression or suicidal thoughts or actions. However, it is important to remember that not all victims of bullying will experience serious negative consequences.
Some research has suggested that the effects of bullying on LGBT and questioning youth may be complicated by additional factors.
During adolescence, children are striving to establish an identity separate from their families. A rite of passage for this time is to form romantic relationships. Unfortunately, some LGBT and questioning children do not receive needed support or approval from their peers or family to establish these relationships, and in turn a sexual identity.
This lack of social and familial support, combined with homophobic bullying, may actually increase the likelihood for depression and or suicidal thoughts or behaviors, reports Dr. Dorothy Esperlage and colleagues in a 2008 study.
Additionally, Dr. Esperlage's and colleagues found that bullied LGBT and questioning students who felt their school was less accepting of diversity and did not enjoy going to school also had higher rates of alcohol and marijuana use, as well as depressive and suicidal feelings.
These study findings highlight the importance of family and peer support, and a school's promotion of diversity and intolerance for bullying.
What Can Parents Do?
While knowing that your child is being bullied can leave a parent feeling helpless, there are a few essential things that parents can do to help their child:
- Support Your Child - As mentioned earlier, LGBT and questioning youth with supportive parents are less likely to be impacted negatively by homophobic bullying. In general, children with family and social support are less likely to feel isolated and lonely. Speak to your child about his or her feelings, and verbalize that you are behind them all the way.
- Intervene Productively - James Kelleher, LPC, a psychotherapist who practices at From Within Therapy in Phoenix, Arizona, suggests exposing homophobic bullying in a productive way. This means reaching out to community resources for help. A parent may suggest or volunteer to bring anti-bullying and diversity tolerance programs to the school's curriculum.
- Have Your Child Assessed and Treated For Depression - If you think that your child is depressed or suicidal, have him assessed by his pediatrician or other mental health care provider. Treatment is the best option for recovery.
Symptoms like academic decline; loss of interest in things of former interest; social withdrawal; changes in sleep and appetite; unexplained/vague physical symptoms; and/or unexplained excessive crying may be symptoms of depression.
Dorothy L. Espelage, Steven R. Aragon, and Michelle Birkett. "Homophobic Teasing, Psychological Outcotnes, and Sexual Orientation Among High School Students: What Influence Do Parents and Schools Have?" Psychology Review. 2008 37(2): 202-216.
Gregory Greene, Ph.D. "Bullying and Concern for Survival." Education 128(2): 333-337.
Personal correspondence with James Kelleher, M.A., L.P.C. From Within Therapy. http://www.fwitherapy.com October 14, 2010.
S.B. Williams, E.A. O'Connor, Eder, M. Whitlock, E.P. "Screening for Child and Adolescent Depression in Primary Care Settings: A Systematic Evidence Review for the US Preventive Services Task Force." Pediatrics April 4 2009 123(4):e716-e735.