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Creating a Safe Haven: How to Support LGBTQIA+ Teens in Foster Care

African American girl is working at home with LGBTQ rainbow flag in her table for coming out of closet and pride month celebration to promote sexual diversity and equality homosexual orientation

When a child or teen is placed in foster care, they need connection, belonging and safety — no matter their identity. Their foster parents create a lasting impact on that child by providing them with the support they need in this difficult time. As a foster parent, it’s important to create a home environment that is welcoming and affirming of all youth who enter your home, and that includes LGBTQIA+ children and youth. 

LGBTQIA+ youth in America face significant challenges and prejudice. According to research from Children’s Rights, as many as 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQIA+, and transgender, gender-expansive and gender-non-conforming youth are overrepresented in child welfare systems. Many young people face the risk of rejection or abandonment by their family members because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and a high number of youths in welfare systems are people of color as well, adding another layer of challenges to their experience.

As a foster parent, you can make a life-changing difference for an LGBTQIA+ child in your care. Discover some strategies to create a welcoming foster home for LGBTQIA+ foster children and teens.

The Mental Health Risks for LGBTQIA+ Foster Children

Preparing for ExamsWhile nothing about being LGBTQIA+ makes a person more biologically prone to mental health issues, the stigmas and discrimination they face have led to much higher rates of mental illness among LGBTQIA+ children and youth, especially for those in foster care who do not have a strong support system.

According to the Trevor Project’s “2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People,” 41% of LGBTQIA+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, with 14% attempting suicide in the past year. In addition to these staggering statistics, only 38% of LGBTQIA+ youth in the United States found their home to be “LGBTQIA+-affirming.

Common Misconceptions About LGBTQIA+ Youth

Every action you take to support LGBTQIA+ youth has the potential to save a life. Feeling accepted for who they are without conforming to others is a value that no child should have to compromise. But this is particularly true for children in foster care who have diverse identities. A caregiver’s acceptance and creating a support system can be invaluable to a child. 

So before we discuss specific ways you can create a more welcoming home, it’s important to address common assumptions about LGBTQIA+ youth. Here are some truths you should know to help counter any misconceptions you may have heard:

An Asian teenage gay beauty blogger with colored hair using a hair dryer to make a new hairstyle. LGBTGIA people and daily grooming concepts.This Isn’t “A Phase”

As LGBTQIA+ identities are becoming more widely understood and accepted, children are coming out at even younger ages than they typically have in the past.

Studies by the Family Acceptance Project found children often have a firm understanding of their gender identity by the age of four and their sexual orientation by 13.

Their Identity is Not a Choice or Trauma-Related

Most children and youth in foster care have experienced some level of trauma due to being separated from their families. However, a teen’s gender identity or sexual orientation does not stem from a traumatic event or anything another person has said or done. The way they feel, act and identify has nothing to do with personal preference or choice. It is widely accepted among medical and mental health professionals today that LGBTQIA+ identities are not the result of a mental health condition.

Their Identity Isn’t Yours to Change

Just as you cannot cause someone to become LGBTQIA+, you cannot cause them to not be LGBTQIA+. Attempting to dissuade them from being who they are can lead to severe depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Attempts at “conversion therapy” or other methods of changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can put that person’s health and wellbeing at risk.

Five Ways to Make Your Home More Welcoming for LGBTQIA+ Youth

Happy African American mother and teen daughter having pleasant conversation, laughing, chatting at home, smiling black mum and excited teenage girl having fun together, family weekend

If you are a foster parent or are considering becoming a foster parent, here are five things you can do to be more intentional about creating a positive, safe and welcoming home environment for LGBTQIA+ youth in your care:

1. Use Inclusive Language

Have a zero-tolerance policy in your home regarding the use of any slurs or jokes about sex assigned at birth, gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation. Be an ally by expressing disapproval of such jokes and slurs when you encounter them in the media or your community. Use preferred pronouns, and gender-neutral language when you do not know the gender identity of a person or someone you are speaking about. 

2. Affirm Your Child’s Identity

Be supportive of how the child in your care chooses to express themselves. Encourage them to participate in activities they enjoy regardless of gender stereotypes and allow them to embrace self-expression with clothes, jewelry, hair, makeup, friends and their room.

3. Ask Questions

Don’t be afraid to ask questions in a kind, nonjudgmental way if the child or teen in your care is comfortable talking about their identity with you. Do not push them to answer or have a conversation if they are not ready, especially if they haven’t come out to everyone in their community yet. But let them know you are available to talk and are there to support them.

4. Celebrate Diversity

Celebrate all forms of diversity in your home! Fill your home with books and media by diverse authors or representing diverse ideas. Present the child or teen in your care with LGBTQIA+ and other diverse role models and positive same-gender relationships to demonstrate that they are not alone.

5. Educate Yourself

Dedicate your time to reading about and understanding the history, issues, and current-day challenges faced by the LGBTQIA+ community. Make yourself aware of all the resources at your disposal to help you and the youth in your care.

What to Do If a Youth Discloses Their Identity to You

father son family man child conversation talking parent boy happy discussion communication together togetherness bonding care black home talk love dad fun leisure joyComing out can be scary for many LGBTQIA+ young people, so it’s important to recognize how valuable the moment is if a child or youth decides to tell you their sexual orientation or gender identity. Here is how to show your support if a child or youth in your care discloses their identity to you:

  • Keep your response positive and affirming. Thank them for telling you, and ask how you can support them. Find out if they’re ready to share this information with others or would prefer to keep it private.
  • Ask about their preferred pronouns and if they would like to go by a different name.
  • Respect their boundaries and privacy regarding when and who they tell.
  • Help them to connect with LGBTQIA+ resources. Do your part to find support and education opportunities for yourself as well
  • Protect them and stand up for them if they are mistreated or discriminated against for their sexual or gender identity
  • Be understanding if their sexual orientation or gender identity changes over time. As they may still be trying to understand their identity themselves

Representation Matters in Foster Parents

Young mothers playing with baby girl in living room.One of the best ways to support LGBTQIA+ children and teens in foster care is representation. Caregivers of all identities can offer a welcoming home, compassion and support. However, caregivers from the LGBTQIA+ community can support young people from a place of shared experience. We are looking for diverse foster parents in Nebraska communities to help care for children and youth in foster care. If you are considering becoming a foster parent with KVC Nebraska, click here to learn more.

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