Studies consistently find that large numbers of transgender adults suffer from high levels of depression and suicide due to social stigmatization. But a new study shows this may not be the case for children who undergo a gender identity transition with familial support.
Researchers at the University of Washington have found that pre-pubescent children who are supported by their parents in making a gender identity transition have normal levels of depression and anxiety. The study, published online this month in Pediatrics, is the first to look at a large sample of transgender children from across the United States.
Seventy-three prepubescent transgender children who had changed their social identities, but not undergone a surgical transition, were recruited to participate in the study. Parents reported children’s depression and anxiety levels with a survey developed by the National Institutes of Health. No difference in depression levels and only a slight difference in anxiety levels appeared to exist between control groups of siblings and unrelated children, and the transgender children whose families supported their identity transition.
This study begins to fill a gaping hole in the landscape of child psychology. Most doctors in the field have very little empirical research on which to base recommendations to families with children who experience gender dysphoria, or do not identify as their anatomical gender.
Previous studies on children with gender dysphoria have associated the condition with depression and anxiety. But the findings in this new study suggest things are different when kids are supported in making a gender transition.”These data suggest at least the possibility that being transgender is not synonymous with, nor the direct result of, psychopathology in childhood,” the researchers write.
Whether or not parents should support their children in making a social gender transition is still hotly debated in the field of child psychology. Advice not to allow young children to transition is based on the belief that children can grow out of gender dysphoria during puberty.
In a 2015 op-ed for the LA Times, two doctors from University of California at Los Angeles and Northwestern University cite research showing that more than 80% of gender dysphoric boys became ”young men content to remain male” after going through puberty. But, as the authors point out, this research was conducted “at a time when parents almost always forced their children to remain their birth sex,” so there is no way to know how they would have developed were they supported in making a gender transition at a young age. Not to mention the roughly 20% who did not grow out of their gender dysphoria.
Today, more parents are open to the idea of allowing their children to transition, according to Diane Ehrensaft, a leading clinical psychologist who specializes in pediatric gender dysphoria. ”I’ve noticed a dramatic difference within the last five years,” she tells Quartz. “I’ve noticed this explosion of a better understanding of children who are transgender.”
Ehrensaft uses an ”gender affirmative model” in her practice, which means she recommends parents to support their children in making a social gender transition if it is safe for the child to do so. The finding in this new study supports her model, which is gaining popularity in the US.