A “modern family” setting in which gay and bisexual youth receive the blessing and love of family members can help kids avoid unhealthy behaviors.
Rutgers investigators found that gay and bisexual youth who are supported by their family and feel comfortable talking to them about their lifestyle are less likely to become involved in high-risk sexual behaviors.
The Rutgers School of Social Work study is published in the Journal of Marital & Family Therapy.
Researchers found that positive family relationships and open dialogue led to an increase in safe sex practices. Safe sex practices included the use of condoms.
However, disrupted family relationships resulted in risky sexual behaviors.
“Youth had limited engagement in unsafe sex when the families were able to have open, reciprocal discussions that were low in disagreement. Close family connections seemed to provide a context for safety,” said Michael LaSala, Ph.D., associate professor and a licensed clinical social worker.
For the study, LaSala and James Fedor, a doctoral candidate, audio and video recorded interviews with 38 gay and bisexual males between 14 and 21 years of age and at least one of their parents or caretakers.
Sons were asked about the nature of their family relationships, what they knew about HIV, whether they engaged in unsafe sexual behaviors, and whether parental relationships influenced their decisions to engage in safer sex.
Parents were asked about their relationship with their children, their knowledge of HIV, and to assess their own influence on their child’s risk behaviors.
Researchers discovered the most important characteristic for limiting high-risk sexual behavior was parent-child closeness. Closeness was characterized by acceptance of the child’s sexual orientation and open communication about a variety of factors including the importance of safe sex.
For example, one mother reported, “He’s come home from school and told me different sexual things that are absolutely untrue, and my husband and I both set him straight.
“We tell him if there is anything that you hear at school and it doesn’t sound right to you, come and talk to us.”
Researchers learned from the youth that family discussions with parents, including warnings and urgings to use condoms, made a difference in their decisions to engage in safe sex.
In families where youth reported no parental influence, half of the sons said they had engaged in unprotected intercourse in the past year.
Almost all of these families experienced some kind of parental-child relationship disruption. Reasons for the disruption ranged from a parent’s death, drug abuse, health problems, or ongoing disapproval or rejection because of the child’s sexual orientation.
One son, whose mother had died, reported that his father cut off ties with him when he came out as gay.
He recalled, “My dad would say, ‘go right ahead. I don’t care what you do’.” Shortly after coming out, he had engaged in several incidents of unsafe sex.
Several youth who had experienced similar rejections became HIV-positive.
“Some parents are afraid to touch on these issues. But we see in the research that an open relationship with parents creates a safe environment for a child who feels different from family members,” said Christopher Famiglietti, a second-year MSW student.
LaSala said almost all parents in the study reported that they were not sure if they were doing a good enough job and wanted assistance in learning how to talk about this difficult subject.
Both parents and children reported difficulties in talking about HIV and in issues surrounding being gay or bisexual.
Moreover, nearly all participants desired that the school system provide additional education on health issues for gay and bisexual youth and wished that health classes would do a better job of educating gay and bisexual youth on the dangers of same-sex high-risk behaviors.
Still, the family plays a critical role in preserving and setting the stage for healthy adulthood.
“We can’t discount the role of the family in protecting these young adults,” says LaSala.
“One son said that it is his mom’s love that keeps him grounded. A family’s acceptance and open dialogue helps to encourage the young adult to take care of himself. So, for many families, the ties that bind could be a powerful motivator to stay safe.”
For families with a disrupted parent-child relationship, LaSala says that a family therapist or family-oriented social worker should be brought in to help families unite.
The professional can assist parents adjust to a child’s sexual orientation and help parents and youth openly and productively discuss HIV risk and prevention.
Source: Rutgers University