Most Kids Grow Out of Gender Confusion, According to a 15-Year-Long Study

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A recent 15-year study from the Netherlands offers new insights into how children’s understanding of their gender identity evolves. The findings might surprise some, suggesting that most kids grow out of gender confusion by the time they become fully grown adults.

Is a Child’s Gender Identity Fixed?


Over 2,700 participants were followed from age 11 into their mid-twenties, providing a unique perspective on how feelings of gender confusion can develop and evolve. The study’s findings, published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, challenge some common beliefs about how fixed a child’s gender identity might be. 

Gender Non-contentedness


At the beginning of the study, around 11% of the participants reported feeling some degree of “gender non-contentedness,” suggesting a significant portion of young teens question their gender identity.

Gender Identity Through the Teenage Years


This same study also explored how these feelings of gender confusion might change over time. Interestingly, the researchers found that most participants eventually moved past these experiences. By their mid-twenties, only 4% of the participants reported frequently or occasionally feeling discontent with their assigned gender. 

This significant drop from the initial 11% highlights the possibility that gender identity can be a fluid concept, and young people may find a comfortable sense of self as they mature.

Gender-affirming Care

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The study’s results add another layer to ongoing discussions about gender-affirming healthcare, especially treatments like puberty blockers and gender reassignment surgery for minors.

A Different Approach to Gender Affirmation


With this new information, it seems a significant portion of children questioning their gender identity might not necessarily need medical intervention in the long run. 

This suggests that prioritizing support and exploration of a child’s feelings might be a valuable approach before considering medical options.

Teenage Doubts and Gender Identity


The researchers behind this long-term study believe their findings can help teenagers understand that questioning their gender identity during adolescence is perfectly normal and quite common. 

A Recent Surge in Transgender Youth


This comes at a time when the US is seeing a surge in transgender youth seeking gender-affirming medications, with some critics arguing that doctors and parents aren’t encouraging enough self-exploration.

Kids and Teens Might Be Rushing into Gender Transition


Patrick Brown, a researcher unaffiliated with the study, expressed skepticism towards rushing children and teens into gender transition. He points to the study’s finding that feelings of gender confusion often decrease over time. 

Rethinking Transition


Brown suggests that for most individuals, prioritizing support and exploration might be a wiser approach compared to immediate medical interventions like hormone therapy or surgery. He argues that teenagers are still figuring out the world and their place in it, and a cautious approach would be best. 

Brown goes so far as to say that policies restricting gender transition for minors seem reasonable based on this new data.

Strengths and Limitations

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This 15-year study is one of the most extensive investigations into childhood gender identity. However, the researchers acknowledge some limitations.

Firstly, the study involved a mixed group: participants from the general population alongside those receiving mental healthcare (though not specifically gender-related). This means the results might not directly reflect the experiences of children clinically diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

Tracking Gender Identity Over Time


The research team, from the University of Groningen, analyzed data from 2,770 participants in the Tracking Adolescent’s Individual Lives Survey. Over 15 years, participants were asked about their feelings on gender identity at six different points. 

They Were Asked One Question


They responded to a question about whether they wished to be of the opposite sex using a multiple-choice scale: 0 (Not True), 1 (Somewhat or Sometimes True), and 2 (Very True or Often True). 

The same prompt was repeated every two or three years throughout the study period.

Evolving Perspectives


The researchers in this study were interested in understanding how a person’s feelings about their gender identity might change over time. 

They focused on a concept they called “gender non-contentedness,” which means feeling unhappy with the gender a person was assigned at birth.

Consistency in Gender Identity


For the majority of participants, their feelings about gender identity remained consistent throughout the study (around 78%). Interestingly, for some participants (about 19%), their comfort level with their assigned gender actually increased over time. 

However, a smaller group (around 2%) reported feeling less comfortable with their gender identity as they got older.

A Gender Difference


The study also revealed a gender difference. Females were more likely to report experiencing gender non-contentedness. 

Gender Non-Contentedness and Well-being


The researchers also observed a connection: those who reported fluctuating feelings of gender non-contentedness, whether increasing or decreasing over time, also tended to have lower self-esteem, experience more behavioral problems, and struggle more with their emotions.

Adolescence and Identity


Patrick Brown weighed in on the findings. He pointed out that adolescence is a notoriously confusing time for everyone, with puberty throwing a cocktail of hormones, physical changes, and social anxieties at teenagers. 

He suggested it’s no surprise that dissatisfaction with one’s body, including gender identity, might be highest during this period.

Understanding Definitions


It’s important to note that this study focused on “gender non-contentedness,” which is distinct from gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is a clinical diagnosis made by a healthcare professional and signifies a more persistent disconnect between a person’s gender identity and their assigned sex at birth. 

Interestingly, separate data shows that rates of diagnosed gender dysphoria in the US have actually been rising across all states except one, with the average age of diagnosis getting younger.

Insights from Gender Identity Study


Overall, the study suggests that questioning your gender identity is fairly common during adolescence, but for most people, these feelings tend to lessen with age. However, the findings also highlight a link between gender non-contentedness and mental health, suggesting a need for additional support for those who experience it.

Kate Smith, a self-proclaimed word nerd who relishes the power of language to inform, entertain, and inspire. Kate's passion for sharing knowledge and sparking meaningful conversations fuels her every word.