Anti-bullying policies are helpful, but that’s only the beginning.
Overall, LGBTQ teens today might face less discrimination at school than in previous eras. However, that doesn’t mean bullying, microaggressions, or ostracization doesn’t happen—from peers and teachers alike. Just like in the home, parental support can play a huge role in a child’s safety at school.
“Parental support is a strong protective factor that can reduce the risk of self-harm and/or suicidality,” says Cole Rennix, MA, LMFT. “When LGBTQ youth know that they are loved and supported at home, they are more likely to tell their parents when something is wrong at school, thus giving parents the opportunity to act on their behalf.”
The Effect on Mental Health
In general, students who face bullying are more likely to experience depression or anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association. Bullying also increases the victim’s risk of suicidal ideation or suicide attempts.
This mirrors the same effect on LGBTQ youth, who experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation than their straight and cisgender classmates, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This isn’t a total coincidence: A 2019 survey by GLSEN found that over 85 percent of LGBTQ youth had experienced assault or harassment at school.
Bullying can be detrimental, but it’s only a portion of the problem. LGBTQ youth in school are often “othered,” says Rennix. “The representation of LGBTQ people in the history curriculum might be limited to a single paragraph, if they are mentioned at all. The odds that health and sex ed classes provide information specific to them are equally low.”
The problem with this lack of representation in school is that it deprives LGBTQ youth of a sense of social belonging. “Before they can even walk, children are bombarded with stories about heterosexual couples and cisnormative gender roles,” says Rennix. This may repeatedly send the message that the school or society at large doesn't value LGBTQ people—even if it’s unintentional.
The Effect on Learning
The APA also reports that bullying can impact someone’s academic success. Victims may try to avoid school and are more likely to drop out. They are also more likely to have lower grades due to stress or missed school days.
Remember, the goal of K-12 school is to help prepare students for a happy, healthy, successful, and fulfilling adulthood. Bullying and anti-LGBTQ attitudes at school aren’t simply a temporary problem that will go away once kids earn their diploma. When kids face too many obstacles at school, it can follow them into adulthood. They may not get to pursue their ideal career, have a harder time finding fulfilling jobs, or face financial challenges.
How Parents Can Help Their LGBTQ Teen at School
One of the best predictors of positive self-esteem and mental health among LGBTQ youth is parental support. When LGBTQ teens feel accepted by their parents, they are less likely to experience suicidal ideation, substance misuse, and homelessness.
It might feel like you don’t have control over your LGBTQ teen’s school environment. However, there are ways you can help out and make sure the school is actively promoting an environment where your teen can thrive. Rennix suggests the following tips:
- Discuss anti-bullying policies with admin members: The school should have anti-bullying policies, and all students and parents should know what they are and the consequences of breaking them. You should also confirm that the school is enforcing the policies consistently.
- Ensure that dead names don’t show up on class rosters: Rosters should always list the name that a student uses, as opposed to their legal name at birth. “Having a transgender student outed by a substitute teacher using their 'dead name' is unsafe and unacceptable,” says Rennix.
- Talk to LGBTQ members of faculty and staff: Find out how they are treated by their administration and peers. This may be an indication of how safe the environment is for your child.
- Demand proper professional development: Make sure that staff and faculty are receiving high-quality training on diversity and inclusion. The training should come from people who have lived experience. “It is no more appropriate for cisgender people to teach others how to make a school safe and welcoming for transgender students than it is to have a white person teach others about doing the same for Black students,” says Rennix.
Finding the Right School for Your LGBTQ Teen
Depending on where you live, you may be able to talk to faculty and staff at multiple schools. That way, you may be able to assess which school is the best environment for your teen. If you don’t have many choices, be a good advocate for your teen and other LGBTQ youth in the school. It can make a big difference.
And let’s be honest: A school that respects students for who they are benefits everyone, not just the kids in the LGBTQ community.