By Andrew M. Seaman
(Reuters Health) - Transgender youngsters identify as much with their genders as do non-transgender children, a new study says.
The findings indicate that transgender children are not confused or delayed in their understanding of gender, as some have suggested, write the researchers in Psychological Science.
"People didn't know how to conceptualize these kids and their experiences," said Nicholas Eaton, the study's senior author from Stony Brook University in New York. "People in the scientific community, the society at large and the media didn't know how to talk about these kids."
Eaton and his colleagues questioned 32 transgender children, ages five to 12, who all came from supportive homes and had not yet entered puberty.
The children were asked different types of questions that have been shown in other studies to be measures of implicit gender identity.
When the researchers looked to see if the transgender children's responses mirrored those of non-transgender kids - known as cisgender children - they found that transgender boys' responses mirrored cisgender boys' answers. Transgender girls responded the same as cisgender girls.
"I think the study speaks to the fact that this isn't something that's created or just made up for attention or for any other purpose than an authentic sense of self," said Dr. Aron Janssen, director of the NYU Langone Medical Center's Gender and Sexuality Service in New York City.
Janssen, who wasn't involved with the new study, said young children should be able to explore their gender identities, which don't need to fall into set definitions of cisgender or transgender.
"The cognitions around gender aren't as fixed as we like to think they are - particularly for kids," he said, adding that parents should approach gender from a place of curiosity. "Ask a lot of questions and reserve judgment."
"The one thing that's incredibly clear in the literature is that parental acceptance is the primary mediator for bad or good outcomes," he said.
The new study is an example of research in an area where it's needed, said Dr. Barbara Warren, who wasn't involved in the new study but is an expert on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health. She said past research is mostly based on accounts of people's experiences.
"We have a lot more evidence now that supports that the folks with gender dysphoria show something that's inborn," said Warren, director of LGBT Programs and Policies in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City.
Eaton said he and his fellow researchers are continuing to enroll transgender children and their families for research. They hope to check in with these children throughout their lives to keep learning from them.
"Unfortunately the trajectory of trans-adult lives are not always positive," he said, adding that they have an increased risk of suicide and unemployment. "These kids are saying from a very young age that they're trans and their parents are supporting that. Studying these kids . . . over time can be very informative."
Janssen said he hopes doctors are now seeing more transgender people when they're younger, instead of later in life when it may be more difficult to transition.
"Whatever gender a child chooses should not be a barrier in their lives," he said.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/168dUqW Psychological Science, online February 2015.