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UD assistant professor Eric Layland shares new research on LGBTQ+ developmental milestones and supporting LGBTQ+ youth

In a first-of-its-kind study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, University of Delaware assistant professor Eric Layland and his co-authors investigated how discriminatory laws and policies affected the developmental milestones of more than 100,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) adolescents and adults across 28 European countries.

Layland and his co-authors found that discriminatory laws and policies were associated with the timing of LGB self-awareness, the disclosure of sexual identity (“coming out”) and the amount of time between LGB self-awareness and disclosure (time spent “in the closet”). Greater structural stigma — defined by the absence of LGB protective laws — was associated with a later age of coming out, longer time in the closet and higher odds of never coming out at all.

Layland, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, shared his thoughts on the importance of this research, his Queer Joy Project, and how parents, educators and community members can support LGBTQ+ youth.

Headshot of Eric Layland
Eric Layland, assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Department of Human Development and Family Sciences

What was the most important takeaway from your recent study? 

Layland: This study provides the first evidence that anti-LGBTQ+ policies are associated not only with poor mental health, but also with individual psychological development. In a time when new anti-LGBTQ+ policies are being introduced at astounding rates here in the United States and abroad, it is important to understand that policies can have a negative effect on the developmental outcomes of LGBTQ+ youth. But when designed to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ youth, policies can also contribute to a warm and supportive environment for LGBTQ+ youth to come out.

How can parents and educators best support LGBTQ+ adolescents during this critical time in their development?

Layland: Even in environments with fewer protections for the LGBTQ+ community, parents can create a home and family environment that provides support and affirmation to youth. Based on feedback from LGBTQ+ youth and their parents, I recommend that parents and educators do three things. First, approach conversations about gender and sexuality identity with openness and willingness to learn. Let adolescents tell you what they are experiencing rather than making assumptions. Second, provide space for exploration and change. Youth want to feel validated and respected even if their understanding of their individual self changes or evolves or time. And third, become an advocate and educate yourself. Many LGBTQ+ youth are tasked with educating adults about identities, LGBTQ+ history, public policies and the diversity of sexual and gender identity experiences. Adults can take the initiative to get educated and take responsibility for creating an affirming and welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ youth.

In another area of your research, you’ve also worked to develop affirmative interventions for LGBTQ+ youth. Could you tell us more about this work?

Layand: I’ve conducted research on LGBTQ+ affirmative cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps youth by providing education about shared LGBTQ+ experiences, supporting them in developing coping skills and by reducing mental health burdens. In a self-guided telehealth application of this intervention, we found that youth who lived in areas with more anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes benefited most from the treatment. We’ve also found evidence that, with additional training, mental health providers can improve their competence and knowledge to support LGBTQ+ youth in mental health services. This highlights the importance of getting resources and affirming supports to youth in “hard-to-reach” places where there may not be as many LGBTQ+-affirming spaces and tools for them to access.

Can you tell us about your Queer Joy Project?

Layland: The Queer Joy Project is an international project that aims to define, document and better understand the joyful, positive experiences of queer and trans individuals and communities. This research is part of a cultural shift to highlight and center the thriving, euphoria and joy that exists for queer people and in queer spaces. With 565 participants in the United States and New Zealand, this is also the first study of its kind.

From our preliminary analysis of our new data, we found initial evidence that reflecting on positive experiences related to LGBTQ+ identities increased feelings of joy and decreased negative emotions. We also found that, while growing up, queer people reported receiving positive messages about LGBTQ+ identities more commonly from peers, romantic partners, teachers and media representatives compared to parents, siblings or other family members.

What are you working on now? 

Layland: We are currently inviting LGBTQ+ youth and their parents or caregivers to participate in a research study focused on LGBTQ+ youth socialization. This project asks the questions “How do LGBTQ+ youth learn what it means to be LGBTQ+?” and “How can parents cultivate this learning and growing process?” The goal of this study is to better understand how LGBTQ+ youth today can flourish and how families can provide an environment that supports their successful transition to adulthood.

Families participating in our study have identified the need for community-oriented resources that support families who are not in crisis and who are ready to celebrate and uplift their queer and trans youth. Our team is working on creating a database of these types of affirming local resources for local families to use in the future. Families can learn more about this ongoing study by visiting our website.

To learn more about CEHD research in equity and diversity or social determinants of health, visit its research pages.

Article by Jessica Henderson. Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase. Photo by Maria Errico.

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