Without a Need for the Closet, Kids are Just Kids

October 9, 2019

When preschoolers identify with a gender that is different than their birth sex, do they suffer more depression than other children? Do they feel the same way about their gender identity as other children their age? What clothes do they prefer to wear?

Photo by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Psychology professor Kristina Olson, director of the TransYouth Project at the University of Washington, is working with families across the United States and Canada to find answers to these and other questions.  So far the results are positive.

“They’re doing really well,” she says.  The trans-youth she studies—children who are transitioning to live as their identified gender in everyday life—show a little more anxiety than their cisgender peers but are no more depressed.  They prefer to wear clothes and make friends with the gender they identify with, says Olson, a recipient of a 2019 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award.  She was nominated by the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. 

By comparison, people who have historically transitioned to their identified gender as adults tend to have higher rates of depression and anxiety, and they tend to be suicidal.  Nearly all of these adults, she explains, “lived for much of their childhoods feeling like they couldn’t come out.  That’s a big difference from the kids in my study.”

Olson says she specifically recruited trans youth who had not yet reached puberty, and that most of the children in her study identified as a gender that differed from that assumed based on their sex before age 4. She and her students travel around the country to meet with these children and their families. Since preschoolers are not necessarily good at verbalizing their answers, her team relies heavily on asking children to pick, for example, which images of toys and clothing they prefer.

In another measure, she might show a child several photos of a girl and a boy, asking whom they want to befriend.  To get at mental health, Olson uses established scales.  In answer to the statement “I feel sad,” the child might answer “never,” “sometimes,” “often” or “always.”

Parents are interviewed on whether the school and the child’s friends are aware of and accept the transition, the types of clothes the child wants to wear, and their perceptions of the child’s mental health.

Olson says she has recruited slightly more than 300 families of trans-youth since launching her study in 2013.  The goal is to follow the children for 20 years to determine how age and children’s early transition might impact mental health and other factors.   Control groups include non-transitioned siblings of the trans-youth and children from other families.