Over the last several years, there have been a number of studies about transgender youth assessing the certainty of their gender identity, their mental health outcomes, and the positive impact of medical interventions. Some of these studies compare the trans children to their cisgender siblings and others in a similar peer group (the control group). Some studies are longitudinal and will follow the children for up to 20 years to understand both short-term and long-term effects of social transition and family acceptance. This is research that can validate the importance of gender identification support for children and offer reassurance to families that an affirmative model of care is appropriate.
One of the most in-depth research projects is being conducted at the University of Washington as part of the TransYouth Project. In one publication from this study, researchers were able to able to predict which gender nonconforming children would eventually socially transition based on how strongly they identified with cross-gender interests. In a later aspect of this study, they found that transgender children who had socially transitioned identified just as strongly with their affirmed gender as the cisgender children (control group) did with their own. Further, there was almost no difference in how they expressed their gender from their cisgender peers no matter how long they had lived as, or been socialized as, their sex assigned at birth. In other words, a transgender child’s gender development happens the same way a cisgender child’s does, and once they are free to express their gender, they don’t hold back!
While it’s wonderful to have data that affirms what transgender adults have been saying for years — that they often recognized their gender identity from a very young age — there was still a question of whether or not affirming a transgender child would cause distress or other mental health issues. Additional publications from this study, have provided the answer. In a national sample of children between the ages of 3 and 12 who had socially transitioned in a supportive home, they showed normal levels of depression and minimal elevations of anxiety when compared to a cisgender control group. This is good news when compared with earlier studies that showed elevated risks of negative mental health. What has become clear is that previous studies had relied on flawed diagnostic criteria to determine if a child was transgender or gender diverse. Additionally, these studies took place during a time when societal acceptance was lower or nonexistent often resulting in ostracism and invalidation of a child’s gender identification thereby leading to increased negative outcomes.
Major medical groups now agree that best practices for raising gender diverse/transgender children are to listen to them and offer validation. Just follow their lead. There is no need for “watchful waiting,” or fretting over a child’s gender identification worrying that they might change their mind later. Meet them where they are right now, in this moment, and they will fare better than if they have to hide from a parent/guardian or struggle them to feel seen and heard.
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