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    How to Protect Your LGBTQ+ Child from the Risk of Substance Use

    From mood swings to rebellion, the teen years can be a time of risk-taking and limit-testing. Ever-changing social media posts, friendships, classes, clubs, family responsibilities, romantic interests and more freedom can lead to a sense of belonging, excitement, and happiness one moment while resulting in feelings of isolation, anxiety, sadness and low self-esteem in the next.

    Is my LGBTQ+ teen different?

    Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and gender-expansive children can experience intense feelings of being an outsider. In a world that doesn’t acknowledge or celebrate their identities, they may struggle with self-acceptance.

    If they are one of only a few LGBTQ+ kids at their school, they may have limited social options. If the kids your child wants to be friends with, or is hanging out with, are drinking or using other substances, they may feel that they need to participate too or risk being left out. Substance use can seem like an easy path to making friends, fitting in or being accepted with the “right” crowd.

    What parents can do:

    • Get to know your kid’s friends and their parents, and talk with those parents about their approach to supervision and their stance on substance use.
    • Encourage your teen to use your home for socializing. Give them a private space if possible but keep an eye on them.
    • Assure your child that they can call you to be picked up whenever they need you, no questions asked.
    • Explain that real friends will give them space to be themselves and won’t make them do anything they’re uncomfortable with.
    • Support them while they learn what is acceptable in friendships, groups and romantic relationships.

    What about substance use?

    Just like adults, some teens use drugs and alcohol to overcome insecurities, let their guard down, and feel socially confident. Substance use may make them feel like they’re really open and connecting with others. However, the risks for young people are higher and can not only lead to accidents, injuries, fights or unwanted sex, but can also harm their developing brains.

    In the LGBTQ+ community, where drug and alcohol use can be common due to the limited spaces in which LGBTQ+ individuals have to socialize, normalized substance use can create a dangerous precedent.

    What parents can do:

    • Find social activities in a healthy, safe, and supervised environment.
    • If your child is socializing at someone else’s home, know where they will be. Call the other parents in advance to check in. Make sure you agree with the other parents about the event, location, and level of supervision.
    • Communicate your expectations and rules for when your child goes out with friends, and include regular check-ins.
    • Model positive behaviors and be outspoken in calling out what’s unhealthy or unsafe. Find opportunities to socialize and connect in environments that don’t include alcohol. Your child is less likely to follow your guidance or advice if you aren’t taking it yourself.
    • Make sure your child knows that underage drinking and substance use isn’t glamorous, normal, or healthy. Although music, movies, and other pop media often portray it as a way to get in touch with yourself, feel free, connect with others, or feel more attractive, you can dispel those myths. Identify what the healthier choice is in each situation. For example, could the character in the movie call a friend, ask for help, or dance it out? Would a different choice result in a better outcome for that TV show character? Use imaginary examples to help your teenager make better decisions for themselves.

    How do I help my LGBTQ child cope with stress?

    Whether it’s the pressure of everyday teen drama or the emotional toll of family problems, stress, or trauma, some kids use substances to dull the very real pain in their lives. These feelings are intensified for LGBTQ+ youth.

    Even popular children struggle with the sense that they don’t fit in, or that they’re somehow defective. Loneliness, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety disorder and other mental health issues are commonly associated with substance use. Furthermore, many of these issues occur in combination with one another, each compounding the intensity of the others.

    Systemic prejudice, which is also called transphobia or homophobia, affects children and can make them question whether they are worthy, welcome, and lovable.

    What parents can do:

    • Offer empathy and compassion. Let your child know you love them, even if you don’t understand what they’re going through. Acknowledge that everyone struggles sometimes.
    • Remind your child that you are there for support and guidance—and that it’s important to you that she or he is healthy and happy and makes safe choices. Show up for your child in ways that are meaningful to them.
    • Model healthy coping skills like exercise, meditation, and mindfulness. Show your kids how to learn from mistakes and disappointments.
    • Brainstorm together to identify healthy ways to manage the stress in their life (e.g., more sleep, getting outdoors, one-on-one times, etc.). Let your child offer suggestions and help them think through their ideas. Who are their allies? Who’s in their corner? Help them connect with people who have their back, no matter what.

    Riding the rollercoaster of life

    Adolescence is a huge rollercoaster. Throw in periods of intense change in teens’ lives—like moving, divorce, puberty, gender transition, sexual awakening, changing schools, an illness or death in the family—and the rollercoaster can feel scary and out of control. Those transitional periods can become a time of upheaval, leading some young people to cope in unhealthy ways. Unsupported transitions are common times when teen might seek relief, privacy, comfort, or numbness in alcohol or drugs.

    What parents can do:

    • Ramp up your communication before, during, and after the transition. Talk your kid through what to expect and listen to how they feel. Discuss how they’ll be practicing healthy self-care and how you can support them.
    • Encourage an open dialogue with your teen about their experiences. Give them props for getting through a major event—even if it didn’t seem big to you, it might have been monumental for them!
    • Set aside regular one-on-one time with your child to bond and have fun together. Those hours are a great way to feel safe and connected, even in the eye of the storm.


    Finally, if your child is suffering, seek out appropriate professional help. Take extra time to assess whether this provider is LGBTQ-friendly and experienced working with young people. With your on-going support and love, your child can become the healthy, independent wonderful adult you want them to be.