Gender Nonconformity Ups Risk of Kids AbuseA new study finds that discrimination against gender nonconformity can begin at a very young age, raising the risk of psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by young adulthood.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that children in the U.S. whose activity choices, interests, and pretend play before age 11 were different from expected gender roles faced increased risk of being physically, psychologically and sexually abused.

At the same time, the study found that most children who display gender nonconforming behaviors are heterosexual in adulthood.

The study has been published online and will appear in the March 2012 print issue of Pediatrics.

“The abuse we examined was mostly perpetrated by parents or other adults in the home. Parents need to be aware that discrimination against gender nonconformity affects one in 10 kids, affects kids at a very young age, and has lasting impacts on health,” said lead author Andrea Roberts, Ph.D.

PTSD has been linked to risky behavior such as engaging in unprotected sex, and also to physical symptoms such as cardiovascular problems and chronic pain.

The researchers, led by Roberts and senior author S. Bryn Austin, Sc.D., examined questionnaire data gathered from nearly 9,000 young adults (average age 23) who enrolled in the longitudinal Growing Up Today study in 1996.

Respondents were asked in 2007 to recall their childhood experiences, including favorite toys and games, roles they took while playing, media characters they imitated or admired, and feelings of femininity and masculinity. They also were asked about physical, sexual, or emotional abuse they experienced and were screened for PTSD.

The findings were sobering as men ranked in the top 10th percentile of childhood gender nonconformity reported a higher prevalence of sexual and physical abuse before age 11.

They also reported more psychological abuse between ages 11 and 17 compared with those below the median of nonconformity.

Women were also at risk as those who scored in the top 10th percentile of gender nonconformity reported a higher prevalence of all forms of abuse.

Rates of PTSD were almost twice as high among young adults who were gender nonconforming in childhood than among those who were not.

The researchers also found that most children who were gender-nonconforming were heterosexual in adulthood (85 percent), a finding reported for the first time in this study.

“Our findings suggest that most of the intolerance toward gender nonconformity in children is targeted toward heterosexuals,” said Roberts.

Researchers say that additional studies are needed to understand why gender nonconforming kids experience greater risk of abuse. Furthermore, studies are indicated to aid in the development of interventions to prevent abuse.

The experts also recommend that pediatricians and school health providers consider abuse screening for this vulnerable population.

Source: Harvard School of Public Health

Sad child photo by shutterstock.