Waning Communication with Parents Puts Lesbian and Bisexual Teens at Greater Risk for Substance Use

A new study finds lesbian and bisexual teen girls are more likely than heterosexual girls to close down communication with their parents over the years. This loss of parent-child communication was linked to greater risk for marijuana and cigarette use when the teen turned 18, report Department of Psychiatry researchers and collaborators in the Journal of Adolescence.   

Most teens pull away from their parents as they approach adulthood, but the speed at which communication fades can vary greatly by family. Sexual minority teens may be particularly at risk for this loss of connectedness due to fear of rejection. To determine if there is an association between sexual orientation and changes in parent-child communication over time, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology Alison Hipwell, PhD, in collaboration with Professor of Psychiatry and Epidemiology Tammy Chung, PhD, analyzed data from the Pittsburgh Girls Study. This large study examines social, behavioral, and health issues in Pittsburgh-area girls from childhood to adulthood. For the new study, Hipwell, Chung, and their colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan examined data from girls starting at age 12. 

Girls enrolled in the Pittsburgh Girls study were asked about their sexual identity (e.g., heterosexual, lesbian, or bisexual) and their level of attraction to the same and opposite sex. For the new study, the team categorized girls as sexual minorities if they self-identified as lesbian or bisexual or reported any attraction to females. The team also examined the frequency of conversations with parents and how that frequency changed over the years. Once a year from age 12 to 17, teens reported on the last time they discussed their activities with their parents (e.g., today or a couple days ago) and how often they told their parents what they are going to do for the day. Similarly, teens were asked how often their parents knew about their activities.  

With these yearly datasets, the team was able to group girls based on their trajectory of parent-child communication. Most girls reported frequent and stable parent-child communication yet quickly decreasing levels of parental knowledge over time. However, sexual minority girls were more likely than their heterosexual peers to have infrequent and decreasing amounts of parent-child communication over time. Sexual minority girls also perceived that their parents were less aware of their activities. These declines in family communication and awareness were linked to increased risk for cigarette and marijuana use at age 18.

The findings indicate sexual orientation may influence how parent-child communication changes as teens approach adulthood. The researchers hypothesize that sexual minority youth may discuss their daily activities less frequently with their parents because they fear inadvertently disclosing their sexual orientation, which parents may reject. Parents of sexual minority girls could help reduce the risk of substance use in their teens with greater communication and acceptance. 

Group-based trajectories of parent-child communication and parental knowledge between sexual minority and heterosexual girls and their associations with substance use
Montano GT, Marshal MP, McCauley HL, Miller E, Chung T, Hipwell AE. 

Journal of Adolescence (2018) 69: 150-162.