Telling Gay and Lesbian Teens 'It'll Get Better' Doesn't Help Them Cope with Stress

LGBT flaf
Members of the LGBT community are seen through a rainbow flag, Mumbai, June 16, 2016. Researchers have found that telling LGBT teens that things will get better may be counterproductive. Punit Paranjpe/Getty

Telling teenagers who are struggling with the stress of being lesbian, gay or bisexual that everything will get better does not help them and, instead, could make things worse, a study has found.

Coping with sexual orientation can be a huge source of stress and anxiety for adolescents. A 2014 report by the New York-based Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found that 80 percent of LGBT students aged between 13 and 21 had been verbally harassed. Forty percent had been physically harassed and 60 percent said they felt unsafe at school.

One of the most prevailing techniques for coping with the stress of being a sexual minority is through cognitive strategies—trying to imagine a better future for themselves. But how well this works, and how well it compares to other methods, is not known.

In a study published in the Journal of Homosexuality, Russell Toomey of the University of Arizona and colleagues analyzed data on 245 lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) young adults, aged between 21 to 25. In it, they looked at the retrospective reports of how these young people coped with stress related to their sexuality during their teen years.

Three main coping techniques emerged—cognitive strategies (it will get better), alternative-seeking strategies (moving schools, finding new friends), and LGB-specific strategies (where they got involved with LGBT organizations).

The best coping strategy was the third, where teens actively engaged in activities, organizations and resources targeted at the LGBT community. This group was found to have better psychological adjustment and were more likely to graduate from high school.

In comparison, the other two strategies were associated with a lower likelihood of finishing high school, lower self-esteem, poorer adjustment and more symptoms of depression.

"Our findings question the 'it gets better' narrative that's been given to LGB youth," Toomey said in a statement on Monday. "Asking youth to accept negative experiences as the only coping strategy potentially exacerbates stress.

"When a young person experiences harassment or bullying related to their sexual orientation or gender at school, principals and administrators might counsel them to transfer to a different school to deal with the problem. The child who has a different sexuality or gender identity expression is then labeled as the problem instead of really addressing the issue.

"In our study, we demonstrate for one of the first times that if youth cope with LGB-related stress by seeking out LGB spaces or information it promotes health and reduced likelihood of dropping out of high school."

As a result of their findings, the researchers say schools should focus on engagement programs and LGBT-related resources, rather than continuing to promote escape-based coping strategies.

"Everybody needs community," Toomey said. "Everybody needs support, and it's really important, particularly in adolescence, to find other people who are like you, since you are going through, developmentally, a stage where you may frequently think that you're the only one that's experiencing whatever you're experiencing."