Studies explore gender identity and children

by Tripp Underwood on February 24, 2012

The journal Pediatrics released two studies this week that focused on the mental and physical wellbeing of children who don’t conform to typical gender roles.

The first study, led by Children’s Hospital Boston researcher S. Bryn Austin, ScD, indicates that kids who fail to adapt traditional gender stereotypes as children are at a significantly greater risk for physical, sexual and psychological abuse during childhood. These children are also more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in young adulthood.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Health and compiled data from almost 9,000 young adults. Participants were asked to recall their childhood experiences, including their favorite toys and games growing up. The types of charters they related to as children, which roles they adopted during pretend play and their earliest understanding of masculinity and femininity where all reported on as well. Researchers also asked participants to disclose information about any physical, sexual or emotional abuse they experienced at the hands of parents, other adults or older children. Finally, participants were screened for PSTD.

The study found that children who showed some instance of gender nonconformity before the age of 11 were more likely to have been the victim of some form of abuse and at increased risk for developing PSTD as adults. The study doesn’t prove a cause and effect relationship between gender nonconformity and abuse, but implies that the connection is strong enough that parents, teachers and health workers may want to consider screening children who display nonconforming gender behaviors for abuse.

Researchers also noted that childhood gender nonconformity was reported across all sexual orientations; 85 percent of youth who were gender nonconforming as children identified themselves as heterosexual in adulthood.

Read further coverage of Austin’s study on CNN’s website.

The second study, led by Children’s endocrinologist Norman Spack, MD, in collaboration with attending psychiatrist Scott Leibowitz, MD, looked at the mental health of children with diagnosed gender identity disorder (GID), meaning the gender they identified with was different than their biological sex. Because it’s not unusual for many children with GID to feel confused, or (as seen in Austin’s study) experience abuse from others, the stress can often amount to mental strife, if not properly addressed.

Of the study’s participants, 44 percent had a history of psychiatric symptoms, 37 percent were taking psychotropic medications, 21 percent had a history of self-mutilation and 9 percent had attempted suicide.

The results of these studies were intended for the medical community, but their findings can still be of use for some parents. “People need to be aware that discrimination and abuse targeting gender-nonconforming children are widespread, affect kids at a very young age and have lasting impacts on health,” Austin says. “These vulnerable children need our care and protection.”

See MSNBC’s coverage of Spack and Leibowitz’s study, or read a Washington Post article where Spack discusses his research.

If you have questions about gender conformity and young children, please reach out to a member of Spack’s team at the Gender Management Services (GeMS) Clinic at Children’s Hospital Boston. The GeMS team is dedicated to providing care and support to infants, children, adolescents and young adults with GID or disorders of sexual differentiation (DSDs).

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