“What can we do?” asked the mother of a 7-year-old boy. She looked up and caught my eye. “What should we do… just last week a woman at the park said something. I couldn’t believe she had the nerve, but she did. I’m worried about him; I’m afraid that kids at school might do worse. There have been a few things said, at least he has hinted at a couple of things. But that could get worse. How they might tease him… I don’t know…” The mother went on to describe her son’s effeminate behavior and mannerisms, as well as how his voice inflection seemed more like that of a girls. She spoke of his tendency to pretend he had long hair and declare, “Mom, I have long hair like you have long hair!” She shared that just this past weekend, he grabbed a towel and put it around his waist and said, “Look, Mom, I’m wearing a dress just like you!” And he would often put on her heeled shoes and walk around in them.
This is obviously a challenging situation for parents, who are often unsure how best to respond to their child. Parents often wonder if this is a phase their child is going through. They may wonder if their child is going to be gay. Most do not know what gender incongruence or gender dysphoria is, so that is often not even on their radar.
Discussions about prevention and/or intervention can be remarkably complicated. Not only are the parents and the child obvious stakeholders, but there are entire emerging communities that have a stake in what happens next. Before we discuss four general approaches that have been in the literature, it is important to know that most cases of Gender Dysphoria (in which the diagnosis applies) actually resolve before a child reaches late adolescence or adulthood. Researchers sometimes refer to “desisters” and “persisters.” A desister is someone for whom the gender dysphoria resolves by late adolescence or adulthood, whereas a persister refers to someone who continues to experience gender dysphoria into later adolescence and adulthood. I discussed developmental trajectories among gender dysphoric children in a previous post, and that might be helpful to review.
So the question of whether and how to intervene is often held up to scrutiny in light of what appears to be a natural resolution of Gender Dysphoria among desisters. But we do not know enough today about how to distinguish children whose gender dysphoria desists from those whose gender dysphoria persists. You can begin to appreciate how not knowing makes every other decision that much more difficult.
There are four basic approaches under consideration:
Decrease cross-gender identification;
Facilitate cross-gender identity in anticipation of an adult identification; and
Delay puberty until a child can decide about gender identity in later adolescence.
Proponents who discuss the first option generally argue that they are facilitating a resolution that is likely to occur anyway. They tend to emphasize the concern that a child will face a difficult social atmosphere in which peer group disapproval takes its toll. One proponent of this model has written about a protocol to facilitate the resolution of Gender Dysphoria among biological males. It includes interventions such as fostering/facilitating (1) positive relationship with the child’s father or male caregiver or role model; (2) positive relationships with the child’s male peers; (3) gender-typical habits/skills; and (4) male peer group interactions. Interventions are really with the parents who then foster/facilitate these interests with the child.
There was an interesting National Public Radio report a few years ago on whether and how to intervene with gender dysphoric children. The NPR report cited The Portman Clinic’s treatment of 124 children since 1989 using a comparable approach, and it was reported that 80% of the children chose later as adults to maintain a gender identity consistent with their birth sex.
Those who are critical of this kind of intervention express concern about the prevention of gender variant expressions and/or homosexuality (as most desisters do later identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual), and some wonder whether those who live consistent with their birth sex are natural desisters whose gender dysphoria would have resolved anyway.
Those who argue for watchful waiting anticipate that as a child’s gender identify unfolds, it will be clear whether the child will desist or persist, and that what occurs naturally, if you will, is likely to be the preferred outcome in these that any other resolution will likely go against the grain of what is unfolding. Cross-gender interests are permitted here, and the parents try to be as neutral as possible in response to the child’s expressed interests. In addition to providing a neutral environment with respect to cross-gender behavior and identity, watchful waiting as an approach emphasizes helping the family attend to their anxiety about the outcome and to facilitate a positive view of self for the child.
Concerns here tend to be around the practical issues involved in being truly neutral about gender identity. Also, there is a philosophical concern about whether what is being referred to as a natural unfolding is the best or most reliable guide to gender identity resolutions.
The third approaches supports and facilitates exploration and adoption of the preferred gender identity. I am distinguishing it from a fourth option in which puberty is actually delayed to provide more time for an older child to enter into adolescence and make decisions closer to age 15 or 16 about gender identity. In other words, parents may elect to facilitate cross-gender identification (rather than be neutral) (option three) but may not wish to delay puberty through the administration of hormone blockers (option four).
If we return to the NPR report we see research cited in support of puberty suppression as well. Researchers in the Netherlands have been following children who underwent hormone-blocking treatment, and in their report on 100 patients, all had made the decision as adults to live as their preferred gender identity (rather than their birth sex). Criticisms of this approach range from the effects on bone-mass development to brain development to questions as to whether co-occurring mental health issues are resolved. Sterility is also a concern. Proponents of puberty suppression say that each of these concerns must also be weighed against risks associated with delaying intervention.
Of course, there are additional criticisms and concerns with each of these four options as well. I just wanted to map out the different paths that are under consideration. Many factors go into making a decision as a parent, and no one decision may be the best decision for every child or family. Decisions should be made in the context of a good assessment, accurate diagnosis, and with an experienced team.
Once a child enters later adolescence or adulthood, we are having a different discussion about ways to manage gender dysphoria. I will either do another post on that or encourage the interested reader to see that part of the forthcoming book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria.
Note: This blog post is Part 4 of a series. If you found this interesting, you may want to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Also of interest may be a recent talk I gave at Calvin College titled Understanding Gender Dysphoria. The book I mentioned can be pre-ordered through IVP or Amazon.