A study of 32 transgender children aged 5 to 12 found that their gender identification is strongly held and not the consequence of confusion or deception regarding gender identity.
The study, led by University of Washington psychologist Kristina Olson, is one of the first to investigate gender identity in transgender children using implicit measures that operate outside conscious awareness and are thus less susceptible to modification than self-report measures. The findings were published in Psychological Science, the Association for Psychological Science journal.
Help with social groups of transgender children
Olson began the research project because she was interested in how children think about social groups, but also because she had experienced the difficulties of a close friend who had 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 must make these 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 notion that young children who have not yet reached puberty can be truly transgender has been met with general scepticism, and some experts believe that the ideal approach is to encourage “gender-variant” children to be satisfied with their biological gender. However, in recent years, more doctors, parents, and mental health professionals have begun to push for children to be allowed to live as their identified gender.
Understanding transgender children’s gender identity
Olson wants to better understand transgender children’s gender identity by using a scientific approach to determine whether their gender identity is firmly held, confusing, or simply a ruse, as some have claimed. Olson and co-authors Nicholas Eaton of 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, focused their study specifically on transgender children who were living as their identified gender in all aspects of their lives, came from supportive home environments, and had not yet reached puberty. Participants and their non-transgender siblings were found through support groups, conferences, and word of mouth. Finally, the researchers drew cisgender youngsters from a database of families that were interested in taking part in developmental psychology research investigations. For analytical comparisons, these cisgender children were age-matched to transgender individuals.
Automatic gender association
Olson and colleagues employed self-report measures that prompted children to reflect on characteristics of their gender in combination with implicit measures aimed to determine the strength of the children’s more automatic gender associations to acquire a comprehensive understanding of the children’s gender identity. One of the implicit measures, for example, based on the widely used Implicit Association Test (IAT), measured how quickly individuals connected gender — male and female — with adjectives related to the concepts of “me” and “not me.” The test is based on the premise that people respond faster to pairings that are more firmly related to their memories. Much research has utilized the IAT to study implicit attitudes towards various qualities, such as gender and race, and brief versions of the IAT that use pictures instead of words have been validated for use with children. Overall, data from the various measures revealed that the responses of transgender children were indistinguishable from those of two groups of cisgender children. Transgender children demonstrated a significant implicit affiliation with their expressed gender on the IAT evaluating children’s gender identity. When the researchers examined the data based on the children’s declared gender, they discovered that transgender girls showed the same pattern as cisgender girls and transgender boys showed the same pattern as cisgender boys.
Transgender children are not confused
When Olson and colleagues examined data from an IAT test that tapped into the children’s gender preferences, they discovered the same pattern of findings. On the explicit measures included in the study, transgender children showed the same pattern of findings as cisgender children. Transgender girls, like cisgender girls, wanted to be friends with other girls and favoured toys and cuisines that other girls loved. “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,” they conclude.
This generation of transgender children pioneers
Olson hopes to recruit up to 100 more transgender children and follow them into adulthood to see how the support they received influences their development and whether it results in more positive outcomes than in today’s transgender adults, launching the first large-scale, nationwide, longitudinal study of transgender children in the United States. “We have absolutely no idea what their lives will look like because there are very few transgender adults today who lived as young kids expressing their gender identity,” Olson said. “That’s all the more reason why this particular generation is important to study. They’re the pioneers.”
Materials provided by Association for Psychological Science. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Association for Psychological Science. “Transgender kids show consistent gender identity across measures.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 January 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150129132924.htm>.
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