Transgender children who are supported in their identities experience lower levels of depression and anxiety than those who are not, according to a recent study published by UW researchers.
The study, part of the TransYouth Project in the UW’s Social Cognitive Development Lab, observed 73 transgender children aged 3-12 using reports completed by their parents.
Researchers found that children who are supported in their gender identity have average levels of depression and only minimally higher levels of anxiety, and said that these findings suggest that mental health problems are “not inevitable” among transgender children.
Lily Durwood, one of the authors of the study, said the lack of evidence-based information about raising transgender children has been an obstacle for parents.
“There are very few studies looking at transgender children, so the scientific world, like the world in general, knows very little about them,” Durwood said. “For that reason, families have no idea what to do when their 4-year-old son, for example, starts persistently and insistently saying ‘I am a girl.’”
Susan Maasch is the director of the Trans Youth Equality Foundation, a national nonprofit organization that works to support transgender children and their families. Maasch noted the importance of allowing children to express their gender identity from a young age, and said some parents only decide to be supportive once their children begin to display serious health problems.
“That can be very damaging, because you have a hard time just getting over the time that they did spend feeling unloved and uncared for,” she said.
Maasch said the results of the study support what psychologists already know about all children.
“If you’re rejected for who you are, if you’re not loved unconditionally, if you don’t have access to the help you need or the support you need, then you’re going to have a bad outcome,” she said.
Maasch emphasized that parents who pressure their children to hide their gender identity or take them to conversion therapy can exacerbate long-term risks to their health and safety. These include higher suicide rates, increased drug use, and seeking hormones on the black market rather than from medical professionals.
Durwood said the Internet has become a valuable resource for parents seeking information and connections with other families.
“If you can imagine a parent 30 years ago with a child insisting that he or she is the other gender, that parent wouldn’t have a way to find other parents with similar stories, and might not even know they had the option of supporting their child in living in their asserted gender,” Durwood said. “Now, families can find other families with stories identical to theirs, read about what other people are doing, and learn from those experiences.”
Carolyn MacGregor, who works for an educational organization in Seattle called Gender Diversity, said parent support groups benefit all members of a family.
“I have seen parents new to a group come from a place of denial, grief, and fear to … one of resolve, empathy, and pride in their child,” MacGregor said. “Most of our parents find their child’s courage to live as their authentic self inspiring and empowering in their own lives.”
Durwood said she has enjoyed working with families in a variety of environments, from Midwestern farms to one-bedroom apartments, to gated suburban communities.
“They are connected by this common thread, that they have a transgender child,” she said. “It’s surprising and mind-blowing to see how incredibly different each family is but how very similar their stories are.”
Marlo Mack, who participates in the TransYouth Project with her daughter and produces a podcast called “How To Be a Girl,” has criticized news outlets for calling the results of the study “stunning.” She said she feels impatient for scientific studies to prove what she already knows about raising a transgender child.
“I suppose I’m just saddened by the reminder that my child’s viability as a mentally healthy human being remains a matter of debate, an open question we still need science to settle,” Mack wrote in a blog post shortly after the study was released.
Maasch said she hopes to see a continued increase in support from parents, and the subsequent positive effects on their children.
“I think it’s a really good model for kids to see their parents speaking up for them at school, and speaking out about issues important to transpeople,” Maasch said. “The kids can grow up, learn to stand up for themselves, and feel empowered.”
Reach reporter Katie Anastas at email@example.com. Twitter: @KatieAnastas