Gender identity typically develops in early childhood, and by age 4 years, most children consistently refer to themselves as a girl or a boy.1 For the majority of children, natal sex or sex assigned at birth, aligns with gender identity (a person’s innate sense of feeling male, female, or somewhere in between). However, this is not always the case. Gender identity can be understood as a spectrum with youth identifying as a gender that aligns with their natal sex (cisgender), is opposite of their natal sex (transgender), no gender (agender), or somewhere in between (genderqueer). The distress that can result from an incongruence between natal sex and gender identity is called gender dysphoria. Youth with gender dysphoria are at increased risk for a number of conditions, including suicide and self-harm. Early identification and appropriate care of these youth can reduce these risks. This month’s column will briefly review assessment of these youth in the pediatric setting.
Many youth who have a gender-nonconforming identity in childhood will not go on to have one in adulthood.2,3 Those who have a consistent, insistent, and persistent nonconforming identity are more likely to have this identity persist into adulthood. Youth who experience increased gender dysphoria with the onset of puberty rarely have this subside.
As it can be difficult to predict the trajectory of gender identity from childhood to adolescence, the approach to the prepubertal and pubertal gender nonconforming patient is different. It is important to note that research suggests that gender identity is innate and cannot be changed with interventions. The goals of care for gender-nonconforming (GN) youth include providing a safe environment where youth can explore their identities, and individualizing treatment to meet the needs of each patient and family.
Care for prepubertal GN youth
Have you noticed, or are you concerned about your child’s:
• Preference or rejection of particular toys/games?
• Hair and clothing preferences or rejections?
• Preferred (if any) gender of playmates?
Has your child ever expressed:
• A desire to be or insistence that they are the other gender?
• A dislike of their sexual anatomy?
• A desire for primary (penis, vagina) or secondary (periods, facial hair) sex characteristics of the other gender?
Are you concerned about bullying ?
Do you have any concerns about your child’s mood or concerns for self-harm?
• Do you feel more like a girl, boy, neither, both?
• How would you like to play, cut your hair, dress?
• What name or pronoun (she for girl, he for boy) fits you?4
The goal for prepubertal youth with nonconforming identities is to ensure that they are safe at home, school, and at play. Some youth may express a desire to “transition” or live as their identified gender by changing their name and dressing as their identified gender. Some youth and families may choose to transition only in certain settings (at home, but not at school). Some youth and families may want a safe space where the child can grow, develop, and continue to explore their identity without transitioning. Mental health providers trained in the care of GN youth can help patients and families decide if transition is appropriate for them and support them with the process and timing of transitioning. For youth who experience depression, anxiety, bullying, or thoughts of self-harm related to their gender identity, care by an experienced mental health provider is essential. It is important to recognize that each patient and family will need an individualized approach based on their needs.
Care for pubertal GN youth
The development of secondary sex characteristics can be particularly distressing for GN youth. Some youth may first experience gender dysphoria at this time. This distress combined with the psychosocial stressors of adolescent development can lead to depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and other risk taking behaviors. Visits with pubertal GN youth, as with any adolescent, should include confidential time alone with the medical provider to discuss any concerns. Youth should be informed that information will be kept confidential, but parents will need to be notified of any safety concerns (such as suicidality or self-harm). As with prepubertal youth, a history related to hair and clothing preferences; distress related to genital anatomy; and the desire to be the other gender should be obtained. A pubertal history and any related symptoms of distress also should be obtained.
• Ask preferred name and pronoun.
• Perform confidential strength and risk assessment.
• Assess for family and social support.
• Refer to appropriate mental health and transgender providers.
• Assume names and pronouns.
• Interview patient only with parent in the room.
• Disclose identity without patient consent.
• Dismiss parents as sources of support.
• Refer for reparative therapy.4
Youth who are suspected to have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria should be referred to mental health and medical providers with experience caring for transgender youth. These specialists can work with patients and families, and determine when and if youth are eligible for puberty blocking therapy with GnRH analogues and/or hormone therapy. GnRH analogues, if appropriate, can be prescribed after patients have reached sexual maturity rating stage 2. The rationale for this treatment is to prevent the development of unwanted secondary sex characteristics while giving the youth a chance to continue with psychotherapy and explore their gender identity.5 Hormone therapy, if appropriate, can be prescribed a few years later under the care of a transgender specialist and mental health provider.
It is normal to experiment with gender roles and expression in childhood. Providing a safe space to do this is important.
Individuals who have a persistent, consistent, and insistent gender-nonconforming identification and who have increased distress with puberty are unlikely to have this subside.
Pediatricians can assess for gender dysphoria and screen for related mood disorders and behaviors in the primary care setting. Appropriate referral to trained professionals is important.
Care should be individualized and focused on the health and safety of the patient.
For health care professionals
• World Professional Association for Transgender Health: Standards of care on care of transgender patients and provider directory. www.wpath.org • Physicians for Reproductive Health’s adolescent reproductive and sexual health education program (ARSHEP): Best practices for adolescent and reproductive health: Module on caring for transgender adolescent patients. prh.org/teen-reproductive-health/arshep-downloads/
For patients and families
• Family Acceptance Project: familyproject.sfsu.edu/
• Healthychildren.org: Parenting website supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Links to articles on gender nonconforming and transgender children; gender identity development in children. www.healthychildren.org
1. Caring for Your School Age Child: Ages 5-12 by the American Academy of Pediatrics (New York: Bantam Books, 1995).
4. Caring for Transgender Adolescent Patients. Physicians for Reproductive Health’s Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health Education Program (ARSHEP): Best practices for adolescent and reproductive health: prh.org/teen-reproductive-health/arshep-downloads/
5. World Professional Association of Transgender Health, Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender-Nonconforming People, 7th Edition ( International Journal of Transgenderism. 2011;13:165-232 )
Dr. Chelvakumar is an attending physician in the division of adolescent medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the Ohio State University, both in Columbus.