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Parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria

Lisa Littman
PloS One 2018, 13 (8): e0202330
30114286

PURPOSE: In on-line forums, parents have reported that their children seemed to experience a sudden or rapid onset of gender dysphoria, appearing for the first time during puberty or even after its completion. Parents describe that the onset of gender dysphoria seemed to occur in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all of the friends have become gender dysphoric and transgender-identified during the same timeframe. Parents also report that their children exhibited an increase in social media/internet use prior to disclosure of a transgender identity. Recently, clinicians have reported that post-puberty presentations of gender dysphoria in natal females that appear to be rapid in onset is a phenomenon that they are seeing more and more in their clinic. Academics have raised questions about the role of social media in the development of gender dysphoria. The purpose of this study was to collect data about parents’ observations, experiences, and perspectives about their adolescent and young adult (AYA) children showing signs of an apparent sudden or rapid onset of gender dysphoria that began during or after puberty, and develop hypotheses about factors that may contribute to the onset and/or expression of gender dysphoria among this demographic group.

METHODS: For this descriptive, exploratory study, recruitment information with a link to a 90-question survey, consisting of multiple-choice, Likert-type and open-ended questions was placed on three websites where parents had reported sudden or rapid onsets of gender dysphoria occurring in their teen or young adult children. The study’s eligibility criteria included parental response that their child had a sudden or rapid onset of gender dysphoria and parental indication that their child’s gender dysphoria began during or after puberty. To maximize the chances of finding cases meeting eligibility criteria, the three websites (4thwavenow, transgender trend, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals) were selected for targeted recruitment. Website moderators and potential participants were encouraged to share the recruitment information and link to the survey with any individuals or communities that they thought might include eligible participants to expand the reach of the project through snowball sampling techniques. Data were collected anonymously via SurveyMonkey. Quantitative findings are presented as frequencies, percentages, ranges, means and/or medians. Open-ended responses from two questions were targeted for qualitative analysis of themes.

RESULTS: There were 256 parent-completed surveys that met study criteria. The AYA children described were predominantly natal female (82.8%) with a mean age of 16.4 years at the time of survey completion and a mean age of 15.2 when they announced a transgender-identification. Per parent report, 41% of the AYAs had expressed a non-heterosexual sexual orientation before identifying as transgender. Many (62.5%) of the AYAs had reportedly been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder or neurodevelopmental disability prior to the onset of their gender dysphoria (range of the number of pre-existing diagnoses 0–7). In 36.8% of the friendship groups described, parent participants indicated that the majority of the members became transgender-identified. Parents reported subjective declines in their AYAs’ mental health (47.2%) and in parent-child relationships (57.3%) since the AYA “came out” and that AYAs expressed a range of behaviors that included: expressing distrust of non-transgender people (22.7%); stopping spending time with non-transgender friends (25.0%); trying to isolate themselves from their families (49.4%), and only trusting information about gender dysphoria from transgender sources (46.6%). Most (86.7%) of the parents reported that, along with the sudden or rapid onset of gender dysphoria, their child either had an increase in their social media/internet use, belonged to a friend group in which one or multiple friends became transgender-identified during a similar timeframe, or both.

CONCLUSION: This descriptive, exploratory study of parent reports provides valuable detailed information that allows for the generation of hypotheses about factors that may contribute to the onset and/or expression of gender dysphoria among AYAs. Emerging hypotheses include the possibility of a potential new subcategory of gender dysphoria (referred to as rapid-onset gender dysphoria) that has not yet been clinically validated and the possibility of social influences and maladaptive coping mechanisms. Parent-child conflict may also explain some of the findings. More research that includes data collection from AYAs, parents, clinicians and third party informants is needed to further explore the roles of social influence, maladaptive coping mechanisms, parental approaches, and family dynamics in the development and duration of gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults.

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