Mental health of young adults with lesbian parents the same as their peers

19 July 2018

The longest-running prospective study on sexual minority parent families in the US has found that 25-year-olds raised by lesbian parents do as well on multiple measures of psychological health as adults from a population-based sample. The researchers behind the study, which includes UvA professor Henny Bos, compared relationships, educational/job performance, and behavioural, emotional and mental health problems in the two samples.

The 25-year-olds are participants in the ongoing U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), which has followed this cohort of offspring from conception to adulthood. The NLLFS, now in its 32nd year, has a 92 per cent retention rate. This is the first NLLFS report based on data collected when the offspring were legal adults.

No significant difference

‘When I began this study in 1986, there was considerable speculation about the future mental health of children conceived through donor insemination and raised by sexual minority parents’, says lead author Nanette Gartrell, M.D., visiting distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. ‘We have followed these families since the mothers were inseminating or pregnant and now find that their 25-year-old daughters and sons score as well on mental health as other adults of the same age.’  

The study focused on mental health because the peak incidence of many psychiatric disorders occurs during young adulthood. The researchers matched the 77 adult offspring in the NLLFS with a population-based sample of 77 adults of comparable age, sex, race/ethnicity and education to examine any disparities in their mental health.

The researchers specifically assessed adaptive functioning, the presence of behavioural or emotional problems, scores on the mental health diagnostic scales, and percentages of scores in the borderline or clinical range. Results showed no significant difference between the two groups for any of the measures.

Prof Henny Bos, Professor Sexual and Gender diversity in Families and Youth

Henny Bos. (Credits: Dirk Gillissen)

Claims against same-sex parenting unfounded

‘These findings demonstrate that claims that it is harmful for children to be raised by same-sex couples are completely unfounded’, says Bos, professor of Sexual and Gender Diversity in Families and Youth at the University of Amsterdam. ‘There is no justification to restrict child custody or placement, or access to reproductive technologies, based on the parents’ sexual orientation.’   

There are an estimated 114,000 same-sex couples raising children in the United States, including 86,000 female couples. Nine states, including Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia, allow state-licensed child welfare agencies to refuse to place and provide services to children and families if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

This is the 23rd publication from data collected in the NLLFS. Previous research found that the development of psychological well-being in these offspring over a 7-year period from childhood through adolescence was the same for those conceived through known or unknown sperm donors. In addition, the absence of male role models did not adversely affect the psychological adjustment of 17-year-olds raised in lesbian households. None of these 17-year-olds had been abused by a parent or caregiver. In contrast, 26 percent of 17-year-olds nationally report physical abuse and 8 percent report sexual abuse by a parent or caregiver.

Publication details

Nanette Gartrell, Henni Bos and Audrey Koh, ‘National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study—Mental Health of Adult Offspring’ in The New England Journal of Medicine (18 July 2018). DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc1804810.

Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law

Published by  UvA Persvoorlichting