It is estimated that 8–10 million children living in the United States are being raised by gay or lesbian parents. There has been some concern that these children may face difficulties during their psychological development. But research on this issue has found that children raised by same-sex parents develop and adjust just as well as those raised by opposite-sex parents. And in 2002, the American Psychiatric Association released a position statement that “optimal development for children is not based on the sexual orientation of the parents, but on stable attachments to committed and nurturing adults.”

While there is plenty of evidence that children of same-sex parents are not at a disadvantage, research on adolescents is very limited. And since issues such as personal identity, peer relationships, and dating become very important during adolescence, this research is warranted.

A new study in the November 2004 issue of Child Development found that parental sexual orientation did not impact adolescents’ personal, social, sexual, or school adjustment. However, adolescents who had warmer, closer family relationships—irrespective of their parents’ sexual orientation—were more likely to have made positive adjustments at school and at home.

About the Study

Researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a large, nationally representative survey of adolescents in the United States. Through in-home and in-school interviews and surveys of the adolescents, as well as in-home questionnaires of their parents, researchers collected a wide range of data on the adolescents’ health and well-being.

For this study, the researchers identified the adolescents (23 girls and 21 boys) whose parents’ responses to the questionnaires consistently indicated that they were in a marriage or marriage-like relationship with a person of the same sex.

Since only six families were headed by male same-sex couples, this analysis included only families headed by female same-sex couples. These families were each matched with a comparison family headed by heterosexual parents on characteristics including gender, age, ethnicity, adoption status, and family income. In all, the study included two groups: 44 lesbian-headed families and 44 heterosexual-headed families.

To assess the adolescents’ adjustment and relationships with parents, the researchers examined the following data:

  • Psychosocial adjustment, including:
  • School functioning, including:
    • Grade point average
    • School connectedness
    • Trouble in school
  • Romantic relationships, attractions, and behaviors, including:
    • Same-sex attractions and relationships
    • Romantic relationship status in the past 18 months
    • Sexual activity
  • Family and relationship variables, including:
    • Parental warmth
    • Integration into the neighborhood
    • Level of independence
    • Perceived care from adults and friends
    • Parents’ perceptions of the quality of their relationship with their child

The Findings

The researchers found no differences in the adolescents’ psychosocial adjustment variables or in adolescent reports of family and relationship processes, whether they had same-sex or opposite-sex parents.

In addition, adolescents of lesbian parents were no more or less likely to have engaged in sexual intercourse or had a romantic relationship in the past 18 months than were adolescents of heterosexual parents. There were only ten reports of same-sex attractions or relationships, which was too few to analyze.

Interestingly, adolescents with same-sex parents reported more school connectedness than those who were living with opposite-sex parents.

While there were almost no associations between family type and adolescent adjustment, the quality of the parent-adolescent relationship significantly affected several factors of adolescent adjustment. Specifically, when parents reported more positive relationships with their adolescents, adolescents reported lower levels of depressive symptoms and greater school connectedness. And when adolescents reported higher levels of parental warmth, they had fewer depressive symptoms, higher levels of self-esteem, greater school connectedness, and less trouble in school. Furthermore, adolescents who reported high levels of care from adults and peers had higher self-esteem and greater school connectedness.

While these findings are compelling, it is important to note that they have certain limitations. First, neither the parents nor the adolescents were asked directly about the parents’ sexual identities, so coding errors or misunderstanding of the questions may have led to misidentification of same-sex couples. Similarly, the data collected was based on self-report, a method that is inferior to observation by a researcher. In addition, this study only included female same-sex families, so the results may not apply to male same-sex families. Finally, the sample size was relatively small, and results from a larger sample could be more readily generalized to the population at large.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings add to the growing body of research that suggests children and adolescents raised by same-sex parents are not at a disadvantage as they develop and adjust. On the other hand, regardless of family type, a warm, close parent-child relationship is vital to positive adolescent adjustment.

Although the consistent findings from this and many other studies should change the way society views same-sex families, social biases will likely persist. Previous research has indicated that children of lesbian mothers sometimes worry about losing friends or being judged by others, and may feel the need to keep their mothers’ sexual orientation a secret from certain people.

Over time, however, the stigma associated with having gay or lesbian parents may begin to wear away, and these children will feel more accepted among a diverse and tolerant community of their peers. And, just as importantly, state lawmakers will have a sound body of evidence to stand on when legislating adoption policy for same-sex couples.