In recent years we’ve seen a tragic number of gay teens,ending their own lives after enduring anti-gay bullying. Eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi, 15-year-old Billy Lucas, and 13-year-olds Asher Brown and Seth Walsh were living in different corners of America—New Jersey, Indiana, Texas, and California—but each of them was subjected to the same kind of intolerance and cruelty, including a callous violation of their online privacy.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents, and gay teens are 4 times more likely than straight teens to attempt suicide. Moreover, the pain gay teenagers feel when they are taunted affects others around them: During adolescence, the mantra is, “I want to be the same.” Teens feel a powerful need to fit in, and when they see a gay student getting bullied for some perceived “difference,” they worry that their own differences—and we all have them—will be targeted by bullies next.
I know that many parents find it difficult to discuss sexuality with their teenagers, but discussion is crucial if we want our children to develop healthy self-esteem, embrace their own differences, and accept what is different in others.
Here’s some information for parents to consider:
1. Teens who are “different” are at higher risk for bullying.
All teens want to be “normal” and fit in with their peers, hence differences in sexual orientation can attract harassment and rejection. According to a survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, approximately 90 percent of gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual middle and high school students report being physically or verbally harassed in 2009. As parents, no matter what we believe (with respect to sexuality, religion, culture, politics), we are responsible for our kids’ behavior, and need to teach them to be intolerant of intolerance.
2. A teen who believes his or her sexual feelings are unacceptable to peers may be at risk for suicide.
Parents, teachers, and all caring adults need to be sensitive to teenagers who exhibit feelings of sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness, anxiety, irritability, rejection, and anger—all symptoms of depression, which is experienced by the majority of teens who attempt or complete suicide. Some parents assume that if they are tolerant of different sexual orientations, their children aren’t affected by the barrage of messages suggesting that it’s abnormal or immoral to be gay. Unfortunately, anti-gay rhetoric has extraordinary, insidious muscle in the cultural landscape, and gay teens are particularly vulnerable. Parents of gay teens are sometimes “the last to know” a problem is brewing.
3. An overwhelming majority of suicidal teens report feeling misunderstood by their parents.
It’s crucial for us as parents to start a conversation with our children, before they go through puberty, to discuss sexual feelings and tolerance of different sexual orientations. If your child is secretly feeling guilty or ashamed of the sexual thoughts he or she is having, you need to know this so that you can give reassurance that there’s nothing wrong with different sexual thoughts, or sexuality in general.
Teens who feel uncomfortable with their sexuality often suffer from low self-esteem, so it’s essential that we counter their feelings of distress with a very positive message of acceptance and love. Our teens need to understand that while we sometimes disagree with them—or simply have different feelings—we respect their beliefs and differences. We love them no matter what.
4. Parents need to monitor their teens’ lives on the Internet.
I’m reminded of a scene in the Facebook movie, The Social Network, in which Napster co-founder Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) says, “We lived on farms. We lived in cities. And now we live on the Internet.” That means that, as parents and educators, we can’t tackle intolerance and bullying effectively unless we engage in Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media platform on which our kids interact.
Online bullies, not face-to-face with their victims, often fail to appreciate how devastating their words and actions can be. Mark Zuckerberg’s would-be girlfriend Erica makes this point in The Social Network when she tells him that saying something cruel to a person’s face is like using a pencil, but saying something online is like using a pen. We have to talk to our kids about the power and consequences of online behavior. And then, we need to teach them how to use social media as a tool for promoting tolerance, compassion, and social justice.
5. Parent-teen communication is our best defense against intolerance and teen suicide.
Believe it or not, teens want to spend time with their parents. We sometimes forget this as we watch them try to assert their independence, but studies repeatedly show that teens want to spend quality time with us—and when they do, they’re less likely to experiment with drugs, have sex at a young age, and engage in other risky behaviors. We have the opportunity to build our kids’ confidence and self-esteem, nurture empathy, and model an acceptance and appreciation of others.
However (and this is key), teens only want to spend time with their parents—and talk openly about what they’re really experiencing—when they believe their parents aren’t judgmental. Again, tolerance, respect, appreciation, love.
I’m encouraged by the fact that so many celebrities—from Cyndi Lauper and Ellen DeGeneres to Matthew Morrison, Jane Lynch, and the entire cast of Glee—are raising public awareness of anti-gay bullying and its links to teen suicide.
I hope you will join me in promoting tolerance to protect young lives. Please start right now by having a conversation with your child.