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What to know about eating disorders if your child identifies as LGBTQ+

If your child identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, you need to be aware that more than half of a group of LGBTQ youth surveyed indicated that they had been diagnosed with an eating disorder.

Of the LGBTQ youth surveyed, 54% of the participants indicated that they had already been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Of the 46% of LGBTQ youth surveyed who had not been diagnosed with an eating disorder, 54% reported that they suspected that they had an undiagnosed eating disorder. The national survey of LGBTQ youth was conducted by The Trevor Project and the National Eating Disorders Association.

Read the complete report here

“The unique stressors that LGBTQ-identified people experience, such as coming out and harassment in schools or the workplace, can impact levels of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse,” Amit Paley, the executive director of The Trevor Project, wrote in a summary of the survey. “All of these can be contributing factors in the development of an eating disorder and are common co-occurring conditions.”

It has been established that individuals who identify as LGBTQ community are 3x more likely to experience a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Since both depression and anxiety frequently co-occur with eating disorders, it is, therefore, no surprise that the LGBTQ community experiences higher rates of eating disorders.

As parents, we must do our best to understand the climate in which our children are growing and protect them as best we can from the dangers they will most certainly encounter. When a child identifies as LGBTQ+ we simply cannot continue as if nothing has changed. We must rise to the occasion and learn about parenting our child in light of the risks associated with identifying as LGBTQ+.

Here are three steps we recommend to any parent who has a child who identifies as LGBTQ+:

1. Acceptance

The first thing we must do for a child who identifies as LGBTQ+ and is therefore at higher risk for eating disorders is to practice unconditional acceptance. This means that we practice accepting our child exactly as they are, without question. This may sound obvious, but it is surprisingly difficult for parents to let go of preconceived notions about who they had hoped their child would be compared to who their child actually is.

We must truly accept our children exactly as they are today, without conditions for future “improvement,” change, or success. This is important because parental criticism (both spoken and perceived) is linked with the development of eating disorders. At the same time, most parents are unaware of how much criticism their children perceive they are receiving on a daily basis. Parents often misunderstand the role of parenting, believing that it is their job to improve a child’s chances in life by continually pointing out weaknesses and suggesting areas for improvement. While well-intentioned, such parental behavior can be very damaging to a child’s self-esteem.

A child who identifies as LGBTQ+ is at higher risk of criticism from society, making it even more important that they are fully and unconditionally accepted by the people who matter most to their essential sense of self-worth: their parents.

2. Education

When your child identifies as LGBTQ+, it is important that you educate yourself about the stressors they face. It’s OK if you have absolutely no idea what it means to live LGBTQ+, but it’s not OK for you to remain that way. Full acceptance means that you actively learn about and engage with your child to learn more about their lived experience, which includes what it’s like to identify as LGBTQ+. Don’t rely on your child to educate you about their experience – educate yourself about LGBTQ issues to demonstrate your interest in their life and the LGBTQ+ community. Some excellent resources include:

Here’s Exactly What LGBTQ+ People Wish Their Parents Knew: this article was published by Seventeen magazine and is a good starting point.

This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids: A Question & Answer Guide to Everyday Life: this book is an excellent resource for parents.

Language Guide: this guide gives helpful language t lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and issues can have a powerful impact on our conversations.

The Trevor Project: the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people under 25. It offers a help hotline: 866-488-7386

3. Belonging

While acceptance for people who identify as LGBTQ+ is increasing, there is still tremendous misunderstanding and mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people. It is important for parents to understand that no matter how confident a child seems to be about their identity, they are still facing tremendous stress on a daily basis that a non-LGBTQ+ child does not experience. This makes it very important for parents to build a sense of belonging and inclusion within their own homes and the environments that they can control for their child. We cannot change the world overnight, but we can work to improve our child’s home environment.

How close is your family? Do you spend time together talking and interacting without digital devices? Work to build your family’s community and belonging by setting aside time every day to connect with each other. Take a vacation together and learn more about each other. Create a family game night or another activity that you may all say is “cheezy” but that undoubtedly increases connection and belonging in families. Everyone will benefit, and your child who identifies as LGBTQ+ will be stronger and better able to weather external storms by knowing that they are held in high regard and unconditionally accepted in their family.

Preventing higher rates of mental illness and eating disorders in the LGBTQ+ community is something that will require societal change. In the meantime, parents are in an excellent position to help their children flourish.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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