Children and Gender Identity
Editor’s Note: This blog is the final installment of a three-blog series adapted from James Emery White’s latest weekend series, “Gender.” Read the first installment here and the second installment here.
Dr. Preston Sprinkle, President of the Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender, tells the story of a young girl named Stephanie.
Stephanie grew up as a stereotypically feminine girl on the autism spectrum. When she was 13 years old, she told her mother that she was transgender. Stephanie’s declaration seemed to come out of nowhere. There had been no prior history of gender dysphoria. No tomboyish interests or behavior. Her mother did, however, find out that Stephanie had just heard a presentation about being transgender at school—a school where more than 5% of the student population identified as transgender or nonbinary.
Her mother, Carol, took Stephanie to a gender clinic to seek counsel. Here’s what Carol said the clinician told her:
“I must refer to my daughter with masculine pronouns, call her by a masculine name, and buy her a binder to flatten her breasts. He recommended no therapy, and there was no consideration of the social factors that obviously affected her thinking. I was directed to put her on puberty-blocking drugs.”
She then adds:
“I was falsely assured that these drugs were well-studied and that they were a perfectly safe way for her to ‘explore gender’. I was told that if I did not comply, she would be at higher risk of suicide.”
In the last few years, stories like Stephanie’s have grown tremendously. Some are calling the sudden rise of dysphoria in teens – particularly young, female teens – a significant and real trend. Psychologists have termed it “Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD). Abigail Shrier likens it to a “contagion.”
To let you know how big of a spike in cases of ROGD there has been, the Tavistock Centre in London, which is the main gender clinic in the U.K., treated 17 females in 2009. They treated 1,740 females in 2019. That’s a 5,000% increase among females in 10 years.
Research on ROGD among teens has found some interesting dynamics:
- Few of the children showed any signs of gender dysphoria to their parents growing up.
- Their new identity seemed to appear out of the blue.
- Many, if not all, of their friends at school were trans, and their coming out often followed their friends’ coming out as trans.
- Many of them became more popular after they came out as trans.
- They engaged in heavy online and social media activity (more than normal) surrounding their coming out.
- Many of them had other mental health concerns that weren’t being dealt with.
The last detail is worth drilling into a bit. 63% had one or more diagnoses of a psychiatric disorder or neuro-developmental disability preceding the onset of gender dysphoria. When these kids were taken to a gender therapist or physician to explore transitioning, 72% never explored issues of mental health, previous trauma, or any alternative causes of gender dysphoria before proceeding with assisting the transition—even when they were informed by the parents of previously diagnosed mental health issues. The study also found that the children believed, through what they had read online and been told by others, that transitioning would solve their problems, including their previous mental health issues.
To some, rush them into hormones and surgery to help them transition as fast as you can. Children are being encouraged to come out as transgender at very young ages, even though their supposed gender dysphoria is often connected with peer pressure, internet encouragement and mental health issues, and parents are feeling pressured to immediately put them on cross-sex hormone therapy.
This is both dangerous and irresponsible.
Colin Wright, an evolutionary biologist at Penn State, and Emma Hilton, a developmental biologist at the University of Manchester, wrote the following in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece:
“Those most vulnerable to sex denialism are children. When they’re taught that sex is grounded in identity instead of biology, sex categories can easily become conflated with regressive stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Masculine girls and feminine boys may become confused about their own sex. The dramatic rise of “gender dysphoric” adolescents — especially young girls — in clinics likely reflects this new cultural confusion.
“The large majority of gender-dysphoric youths eventually outgrow their feelings of dysphoria during puberty…. “Affirmation” therapies, that insist a child’s cross-sex identity should never be questioned, and puberty-blocking drugs, advertised as a way for children to “buy time” to sort out their identities, ... only solidify feelings of dysphoria, setting them on a pathway to more invasive medical interventions and permanent infertility. This pathologizing of sex-atypical behavior is extremely worrying and regressive.”
This is low-hanging fruit: Is a teenager who’s wrestling with their gender identity, along with other likely co-occurring mental health concerns, able to make an informed decision about undergoing irreversible surgeries to align their body with their perceived gender identity? Remember, our brains aren’t even fully developed until we’re around the age of 25. Yet we’re giving cross-sex hormones to kids as young as 12 and performing double mastectomies on biological girls as young as 13? We’re removing their uterus and ovaries at 16?
And before someone raises the issue of inviting suicide if we don’t facilitate children transitioning, do the research. As Sprinkle notes, the advice “transition or suicide” is neither psychologically nor ethically responsible. In truth, it is those who have transitioned who are the ones most likely to become suicidal.
So what should parents do if confronted with ROGD? You should be informed, involved and in charge. The proper assumption with parenting is simple: your children are immature and need parental maturity. Children are not little adults, they are children.
Be informed about ROGD. Then, get involved. Many kids struggling with gender dysphoria – and particularly rapid-onset gender dysphoria – have other issues going on. Issues related to anxiety, depression and self-harm. They’ve gone through trauma or abuse. They feel isolated and weighed down by social pressures. They are turning to peers and online communities because there is no one else involved in their life and what they are feeling and going through. But they should be going to you, and you should be going to them.
Finally, be in charge. If you know your child has excessive internet use, and especially social media, you need to know that when it comes to gender and sexuality, the internet is a hot mess.
Parents are meant to be in charge of that!
If you know that your child’s friends are wanting to explore opposite sex identities, or you see them dressing in that way,
… parents are in charge of that, too!
Every step of the way, you’re in charge. They are not. A gender clinic is not. Their peers are not. Culture is not. Parents are. And parents need to quit acting like they’re not. Studies have shown that the vast majority of children who start to show transgender tendencies or other types of gender dysphoria will naturally grow out of it, particularly if the parents don’t cater to it.
All to say, ROGD is a real cultural phenomenon. But the answer isn’t in hormones or surgeries. The answer is parenting. Children are immature and parents are mature, and children desperately need that maturity, that leadership, that direction,
… and yes, that control.
James Emery White
Preston Sprinkle, Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church and What the Bible Has to Say.
Colin M. Wright and Emma N. Hilton, “The Dangerous Denial of Sex,” The Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2020, read online.
Abigail Shrier, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.