Children of lesbian mothers have healthy psychological growth

by Kristina Fiore

Children born to lesbian mothers appear to have healthy, if not better, psychological development when compared with average American children, researchers have found.

In the first prospective cohort study of its kind, these children were found to have better social, academic, and overall competence and significantly fewer social problems than typical American children, according to Nanette Gartrell, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco, and Henry Bos, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

They reported their findings online in Pediatrics.

“We didn’t expect to find ‘better,'” Gartrell told MedPage Today. “We expected to find ‘as good as.'”

She said parental involvement was likely the key to their success.

“What I do know from working with these families in depth, is that these were planned families, and the mothers strongly desired to have children,” she said. “That impacts well-being. They had other [qualities] that go with good outcomes, like love, nurture, and good resources to provide for them.”

Studies have estimated that 270,313 American children were living in homes headed by same-sex couples in 2005, and twice as many are raised by a single gay or lesbian parent.

Other than a few cross-sectional studies, there’s been a general lack of data on the psychological adjustment of adolescents reared in lesbian households since birth.

So to assess that adjustment the researchers enrolled 154 lesbian mothers who conceived through donor insemination in the U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study between 1986 and 1992.

Their 78 offspring were interviewed and completed questionnaires when they were 10 and 17 years old. Their parents were interviewed and completed checklists at the same time.

Gartrell said the study is ongoing, with a 93% retention rate to date.

She and Bos found that lesbian mothers rated their 17-year-old children significantly higher in social, academic, and total competence than typical American children, as compared with Achenbach’s normative sample of American youth.

They also had significantly fewer social problems, and less rule-breaking, aggressive, and externalizing problem behavior than their age-matched counterparts, the researchers wrote.

That may be explained by the mothers’ “commitment even before their offspring were born to be fully engaged in the process of parenting,” the researchers said, noting that during pregnancy, the mothers took classes and formed support groups to learn about raising a child.

“They were actively involved in the education of their children and aspired to remain close to them, however unique their interests, orientations, and preferences may be,” they wrote.

Gartrell said that the mothers were keenly aware of the prospect of discrimination, so they “took a lot of time educating people who came into contact with their families — obstetricians, pediatricians, teachers, administrators. They were always working on diversity programs and anti-bullying programs.”

And the lower levels of externalizing problems may be explained by disciplinary styles, they added. The mothers used verbal limit-setting, and studies have shown they use less corporal punishment and less power assertion than heterosexual fathers.

“Growing up in households with less power assertion and more parental involvement has been shown to be associated with healthier psychological adjustment,” the researchers wrote.

Also, there were no differences among adolescent offspring who were conceived by known, as-yet-unknown, and permanently unknown donors, or between offspring whose mothers were still together and offspring whose mothers had separated, the researchers reported.

But they did see that there were significantly higher internalizing and total problem behavior scores among 29 offspring who had been stigmatized according to their mothers.

Gartrell noted that those who are already experiencing behavior problems may be more likely to elicit teasing by their classmates and report those experiences to their mothers.

The study was limited in that it was not a random sample, and was not controlled for race, ethnicity, or other demographic factors.

In an accompanying editorial, Joseph F. Hagan, MD, of the University of Vermont, wrote that he is “not surprised” by the findings of the study. He referenced an earlier American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on children of lesbian parents that asserted that “in young children, adjustment is largely determined by family functioning: regardless of their parents’ gender or sexual orientation, children fare better when their parents are compatible, share responsibilities, provide financial stability, and have healthy interpersonal connections.”

He wrote that it should be reassuring to those who fear homosexual relationships, as it shows that such partnerships won’t “put an end to family life as we know it.”

“Our experience tells of the resilience of children who are loved and know that love,” Hagan wrote. “Our learning tells us of the boundless ability of children to respond to that love despite the absence of a traditional parenting relationship.”

Gartrell said the study will be ongoing for as long as possible in order to assess other aspects, including the adolescents’ own sexual orientation and their experiences growing up in lesbian families.

Kristina Fiore is a MedPage Today staff writer.

Originally published in MedPage Today. Visit for more pediatrics news.

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