The gender identity of transgender children is deeply held and is not the result of confusion about gender or pretense, according to new research by psychological scientist Kristina Olson, Ph.D., of the University of Washington.
Olson is the first to take a scientific approach to investigating whether the gender identity of transgender children is deeply held, confused or simply pretense, as some have proposed. She began the research project, partly out of her interest in how children think about social groups, but also because she’d witnessed the challenges of a close friend with a transgender child.
“Seeing how little scientific information there was, basically nothing for parents, was hard to watch,” Olson said.
“Doctors were saying, ‘We just don’t know,’ so the parents have to make these really big decisions: Should I let my kid go to school as a girl, or should I make my kid go to school as a boy? Should my child be in therapy to try to change what she says she is, or should she be supported?”
The idea that young children, who haven’t gone through puberty, can truly be transgender has been very controversial. Some experts believe the best approach is to encourage “gender-variant” children to be comfortable with their biological gender.
More recently, however, an increasing number of doctors, parents, and mental health professionals have begun to advocate for allowing children to live as their identified gender.
Olson’s co-authors were Nicholas Eaton, Ph.D., at Stony Brook University and Aidan Key of Gender Diversity, a Seattle organization that provides training and runs support groups for families of gender-nonconforming children.
The researchers specifically focused their study on 32 transgender children (ages five to 12) who were living as their identified gender in all aspects of their lives, who came from supportive home environments, and who had not yet reached puberty.
The participants and their cisgender (non-transgender) siblings were recruited through support groups, conferences, and word of mouth. The researchers also recruited cisgender children from other non-transgender families for analytical comparisons.
Key, who helped to develop questions and to recruit children for the study, said he has met parents of transgender children as young as five years old who have significant anxiety and depression, even suicidal impulses.
“Families are searching for information,” he said. “Nobody wants a child to say, ‘I wish I were dead’ when they’re six years old.”
Key expects Olson’s research will affirm what parents he works with have discovered: that embracing their children’s identities leads to happier, healthier young adults.
“The evidence is there in the lives of their children,” he said. “The research is struggling to catch up. That’s why Kristina’s work is so powerful.”
In one instance, the researchers used the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which assessed the speed with which the children associated male and female gender with descriptors related to the concepts of “me” and “not me.”
The test is based on the theory that people respond more quickly to pairings that are more strongly associated in memory. Overall, the findings showed that transgender children’s responses were indistinguishable from those of the two groups of cisgender children.
Transgender children also showed the same pattern of results as cisgender children on the explicit measures included in the study. For example, transgender girls, just like cisgender girls, preferred to be friends with other girls and they tended to prefer the same toys and foods that other girls liked.
“While future studies are always needed, our results support the notion that transgender children are not confused, delayed, showing gender-atypical responding, pretending, or oppositional — they instead show responses entirely typical and expected for children with their gender identity,” the researchers write.
“The data reported in this paper should serve as further evidence that transgender children do indeed exist and that this identity is a deeply held one.”
The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Source: University of Washington