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A Developmental, Biopsychosocial Model for the Treatment of Children with Gender Identity Disorder

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This article provides a summary of the therapeutic model and approach used in the Gender Identity Service at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. The authors describe their assessment protocol, describe their current multifactorial case formulation model, including a strong emphasis on developmental factors, and provide clinical examples of how the model is used in the treatment.
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Journal of Homosexuality
ISSN: 0091-8369 (Print) 1540-3602 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wjhm20
A Developmental, Biopsychosocial Model for
the Treatment of Children with Gender Identity
Disorder
Kenneth J. Zucker PhD , Hayley Wood PhD , Devita Singh MA & Susan J.
Bradley MD
To cite this article: Kenneth J. Zucker PhD , Hayley Wood PhD , Devita Singh MA & Susan
J. Bradley MD (2012) A Developmental, Biopsychosocial Model for the Treatment of
Children with Gender Identity Disorder, Journal of Homosexuality, 59:3, 369-397, DOI:
10.1080/00918369.2012.653309
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Journal of Homosexuality, 59:369–397, 2012
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0091-8369 print/1540-3602 online
DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2012.653309
A Developmental, Biopsychosocial Model
for the Treatment of Children with Gender
Identity Disorder
KENNETH J. ZUCKER, PhD, HAYLEY WOOD, PhD,
DEVITA SINGH, MA, and SUSAN J. BRADLEY, MD
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
This article provides a summary of the therapeutic model and
approach used in the Gender Identity Service at the Centre for
Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. The authors describe
their assessment protocol, describe their current multifactorial case
formulation model, including a strong emphasis on developmental
factors, and provide clinical examples of how the model is used in
the treatment.
KEYWORDS gender, gender identity, gender identity disorder,
gender identity disorder of childhood, gender identity disorder of
adolescence, gender variance, transgender, transsexual, treatment
In this article, we will outline the therapeutic approach for children that has
evolved in the Gender Identity Service, Child, Youth, and Family Program
at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Since our clinic
was established in the mid-1970s, we have evaluated a total of 590 children
(age range, 2–12 years) who were referred to our service. In organizing this
article, we will attempt to address the majority of questions provided to the
contributors by the guest editors.
WHAT CONSTITUTES AN ASSESSMENT?
Tables 1–2 show the assessment protocol that we currently use in our clinic.
As is the case for most children referred for a psychiatric and psychologic
Address correspondence to Kenneth J. Zucker, Gender Identity Service, Child, Youth,
and Family Program, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 250 College St., Toronto, ON
M5T 1R8, Canada. E-mail: Ken_Zucker@camh.net
369
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370 K. J. Zucker et al.
TABLE 1 Clinical assessment protocol
Interview schedule Approximate duration
Telephone intake interview .5–1.5 hours
Family interview 3 hours
Individual interviews with parents 2–5 hours/parent
Psychological testing of the child 4 hours
Individual interview with child 1 hour
Feedback session 1–2 hours
Note. In Canada, there is universal health care coverage. When a child is seen in a
hospital setting, the Canadian health care plan covers the entire cost. A psychiatrist
bills directly the health care system for all face-to-face contact. Psychologists who
work in a hospital setting are paid an hourly rate, but do not bill the health care
plan. For child psychiatrists in private practice, they also bill the health care plan for
all face-to-face contact. Psychologists in private practice operate on a fee-for-service
basis. Clients pay the psychologist directly. If they have private health insurance, at
least some of the costs are covered by the individual health care plan.
TABLE 2 Psychological testing protocol and parent-completed questionnaires
Test/task/questionnaire Comment/reference
Child measures
IQ test WPPSI-III or WISC-IV
Quality of attachment (mother-child
observation)
Used with children 3–6 years of age.
Cassidy and Marvin (1992)
Feelings, Attitudes, and Behaviors Scale for
Children
Used with children 6–10 years of age.
Beitchman (1996)
Youth Self-Report Form Used with children 11–12 years of age.
Achenbach and Edelbrock (1986a)
Rorschach Zucker, Lozinski, Bradley, and Doering
(1992)
Draw-a-Person test Zucker, Finegan, Doering, and Bradley
(1983)
Free play task Zucker, Doering, Bradley, and Finegan
(1982)
Playmate and Play Style Preferences
Structured Interview
Fridell, Owen-Anderson, Johnson,
Bradley, and Zucker (2006)
Color preference task Chiu et al. (2006)
Gender Identity Interview for Children Wallien et al. (2009) and Zucker et al.
(1993)
Parent/teacher measures
Separation Anxiety Interview schedule Used for boys only. Zucker, Bradley, and
Lowry Sullivan (1996)
Child Behavior Checklist Achenbach and Edelbrock (1983)
Teacher’s Report Form Achenbach and Edelbrock (1986b)
Temperament questionnaire Zucker and Bradley (1995)
Games Inventory Bates and Bentler (1973)
Gender Identity Questionnaire for Children Johnson et al. (2004)
Symptom Checklist-90 Derogatis (1983)
Dyadic Adjustment Scale Spanier (1976)
Recalled Childhood Gender
Identity/Gender Role Questionnaire
Zucker et al. (2006)
Note. We no longer use the two gender constancy assessment measures reported on by Zucker et al.
(1999). The Children’s Depression Inventory is used on an ad hoc basis.
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Treatment of Children with Gender Identity Disorder 371
assessment, a referral is invariably initiated on the part of parents or a health
professional (e.g., the pediatrician, a family physician, a teacher or a mental
health professional currently involved in the care of the child and the fam-
ily). Upon receipt of the referral, the first phase in our assessment protocol is
to conduct an intake telephone interview with a parent or another primary
caregiver (e.g., a child protection worker). In this intake telephone inter-
view, which varies between 30 and 90 minutes, parents provide information
about why they have contacted us, their concerns, and their goals. We col-
lect infor mation about their child’s gender development (asking questions
about behaviors that correspond to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR, American Psychiatric Association, 2000) diag-
nosis of Gender Identity Disorder), whether there are other concerns about
the child’s socioemotional development (including other DSM diagnoses),
previous mental health contacts, the child’s physical health, and whether
or not there is a family history of psychologic problems/psychiatric disor-
ders. If a child has had previous mental health contacts, this information is
requested for review prior to our own assessment. An intake interview is as
follows:
1
An intake telephone interview was conducted with Zack’s mother, last-
ing approximately 45 minutes. Ms. Aziz appeared to be quite distracted
during the phone call, often excusing herself to attend to her children,
who were heard screaming in the background. Zack, age 3, lives with
his parents and 6-month-old sister. Both parents are employed full-time
as managers of business firms.
Ms. Aziz explained why the referral to our clinic was initiated. She
described Zack as exhibiting an array of behaviors that she believes to
be female-typical. For example, he will color his fingernails to mimic nail
polish, will wear her shoes, wrap a blanket around himself to make a
skirt, and appears to be very fascinated by jewelry. She said that she first
noticed these behaviors just over a year ago and that they have increased
since then. Ms. Aziz said that she initiated contact with our clinic to lear n
how to deal with these behaviors.
Ms. Aziz stated that she believes that Zack knows that he is a boy
and has a penis. She thinks that he notices the anatomical differences
between himself and his sister. She said that she saw him “pushing his
penis in” about 3 months ago. In terms of gender identity statements,
Zack has said that he is a girl and that he wants to be a girl. Ms. Aziz said
that she has responded to these statements by asking Zack, “Why?” Ms.
Aziz explained that Zack is not able to express himself very well through
speech, so has not been able to answer this question with clarity.
Ms. Aziz said that Zack displays a range of behaviors, acting in a
gender-typical fashion at times. He enjoys playing with other children
and has both male and female friends. It was reported that Zack’s best
friend is a boy and, together, they will play in a rough-and-tumble man-
ner. However, Ms. Aziz believes that Zack likes being around same-aged
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372 K. J. Zucker et al.
girls more. With girls, Zack is said to be less active, sitting back and
watching them with a look of fascination. He has made comments about
liking the clothing of the girls in his class.
In terms of the feedback Zack has received regarding his cross-gender
behaviors, Ms. Aziz said that she believes they have been inconsistent.
Starting at the age of 1.5 years, Zack attended a daycare run by a woman,
who Ms. Aziz thinks encouraged and taught some of his female-typical
behavior because she found it “entertaining.” For example, at this day-
care, Zack was taught how to belly dance. Ms. Aziz sees the movements
involved in belly dancing as being quite feminine and said that Zack
enjoys showing them off. Zack’s teachers have noticed some cross-
gender behaviors but do not discourage them unless they are potentially
harmful. For example, they will only intervene if they see him painting
on his own skin.
Ms. Aziz said that her family identifies as Muslim. She explained that
cross-gender behaviors are unacceptable in the Muslim faith, but said
that their family is not very observant. Ms. Aziz has seen her husband
get quite agitated by Zack’s female-typical behavior and said that he
“hates the idea” of Zack being girly. Mr. Aziz has made disapproving
comments to Zack, like “you look silly” when he dresses up like a girl.
Ms. Aziz believes that she has contributed to Zack’s gender confu-
sion herself somewhat. Until recently, she has read him fairy tales like
Cinderella, with female characters that Zack has seemed to really con-
nect with. At first, she tried to ignore his cross-gender tendencies and
not make any comments. However, she said that since reading online
about Dr. Zucker’s approach, she has tried to replace the feminine things
that Zack is interested in with more masculine things. For example, she
has taken away fairy tales and replaced them with stories about male
characters, like Diego. Zack reportedly pays some attention to the newly
introduced items, but appears to miss the female-typical things. Ms. Aziz
said that he will throw a tantrum when something he likes is removed.
For example, when his makeshift skirt was taken away, he cried and
expressed that he wanted it back. She said that she still tries to remain
neutral on the subject because she does not want to “cause harm,” but
has told him many times that he is a boy and has a penis.
Within the family, Zack is said to be closest with his mother, who
has been his “primary caregiver.” Ms. Aziz said that she has always been
responsible for Zack’s daily routine and she described Zack as being very
attached to her. She has noticed separations from her, like when he goes
to daycare, as being difficult for him. Zack is also said to be quite close
with his grandmother, who is said to be very female typical. He often
appears to be fascinated by her jewelry and makeup. She said that he just
appears to like having someone around, even if he is playing by himself.
He is also said to have a good relationship with his father. Together, they
will read stories, build blocks, and ride bikes in the summer. Ms. Aziz said
that Zack seemed to hate the idea of having a younger sister when she
was pregnant. For example, he made a comment about sending the baby
on a train to go to his aunt’s house. Zack appears to have gotten used
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Treatment of Children with Gender Identity Disorder 373
to the idea of having a younger sister. Ms. Aziz stated that Zack loves
his sister and will sometimes appear to be frightened that something bad
might happen to her.
Ms. Aziz said that her relationship with her husband has been con-
tentious at times. When Zack was 1.5 years old, Ms. Aziz and her
husband had their biggest fight. Ms. Aziz described this fight as “trau-
matic,” as Zack witnessed his father hold a gun to his mother’s chest.
As a result, the police were involved. Ms. Aziz said that she is not sure
if Zack remembers this incident because he has not said anything about
it, but she believes it might have affected him. This fight was an isolated
episode in terms of magnitude, but there have been other instances of
argumentativeness. Zack is said to always take his mother’s side in these
arguments, asking his father why he is being “bad to mommy.”
Ms. Aziz’s pregnancy with Zack was the result of in vitro fertilization.
He has been exposed to three languages all at once, so she believes
that his speech has been slow to progress as a result. When asked why
she thought Zack displayed these cross-gender behaviors, Ms. Aziz cited
many environmental explanations. She said that she thinks it is likely
related to his attachment to her. She noted that he sees her all the time
and that she has always been the one to take care of his routine. She
said that, although she does not see herself as being very “girly,” she
thinks that she has encouraged his identification with females by reading
him fairy tales. Ms. Aziz also believes that his daycare provider is some-
what responsible for teaching and encouraging female-typical behaviors.
Finally, she thinks that he is more likely to behave in this way if he is
“lacking attention” or bored.
Prior to the assessment, parents are provided with information about
the temporal course of the assessment (typically 3–4 visits) and what it will
involve. Parents are asked what they will inform their child about the assess-
ment, who they are going to see, and why they are coming to see us. In our
experience, this is an important phase in the assessment process in terms of
establishing appropriate assessment rapport, particularly with anxious par-
ents. For the majority of parents, they do not have a particular difficulty or
problem in explaining to their child that they are coming to see some “talk-
ing doctors who know a lot about families” (a script that we suggest). They
are able to frankly discuss with their child that they are coming to see a
talking doctor to understand better why their child wishes to be of the other
gender. This is usually because the issue has been on the table within the
family environment.
There are, however, a minority of parents who are very uncertain and
torn about what to tell their child. A common comment is, “I don’t know
what to tell him. I don’t want him to think that there is anything wrong with
him.” Our suggestion for these parents is to, first, state that the issue is not a
matter of right or wrong. Rather, the issue is to understand better why their
child feels the way that he or she does and the purpose of the assessment
is to determine how to best help them and their child. For these parents,
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374 K. J. Zucker et al.
we have found this suggestion to usually be helpful and they might be able
to say something like, “You know how you have been telling mommy that
you want to be a girl, that you like ‘girls’ toys,’ that you like to dress-up
in mommy’s clothes? Well, mom and dad want to understand better how
you are feeling about yourself and we are going to go and see some talking
doctors who know a lot about kids.” In our experience, almost all reluctant
parents who contact us are able to provide this information. However, for
the very small minority who cannot provide this information due to severe
anxiety or ambivalence, we will meet only with the parents. If after meeting
us, they are comfortable bringing their child, the usual assessment protocol
follows. If not, the assessment is conducted only with the parents. Since
1975, only five assessments were conducted only with parents.
The assessment protocol usually allows us to acquire enough informa-
tion to decide whether or not the child meets the DSM criteria for Gender
Identity Disorder (GID) and any other psychiatric disorder. Multiple sources
of information are used, including the open-ended material gleaned from the
clinical interviews, a review of the psychological testing of the child, and an
examination of the relevant parent-report questionnaires. The assessment
also attempts to understand the general functioning of the family matrix
(e.g., the parent’s relationship, parent-child relationships, sibling relation-
ships, etc.) and how the child is functioning at school, in the peer group,
etc. An effort is made to gain an understanding of how the parents have
made sense of their child’s gender development (e.g., its origins), how the
parents have responded to their child’s cross-gender behavior prior to the
assessment, what goals the parents have with regard to their child’s gender
development, and so on.
ON WHAT BASIS IS IT DECIDED THAT TREATMENT IS INDICATED?
Prior to providing parents with feedback, we have a case formulation con-
ference among the team members involved in the assessment. It is obvious
that a case formulation requires some type of conceptual model to guide it.
Accordingly, we will comment here on some of the parameters that under-
lie what we would like to characterize as a developmental, biopsychosocial
model that we use in case formulations and in generating treatment decisions
and recommendations. It is a model informed by a variety of theoretical and
empirical advances that have emerged in the clinical and scientific literature
over the past several decades.
1. Is gender identity fixed and unalterable in childhood? For the vast majority
of children, it is probably safe to say that gender identity is a stable
trait. A girl who “has” a female gender identity at age 3 is very much
likely to have a female gender identity at age 13, at age 23, and so on
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Treatment of Children with Gender Identity Disorder 375
throughout the life course. In this sense, one might argue that the gender
identity at age 3 was fixed and unalterable. But, for most children, no
one tries to alter their gender identity after it is first expressed, for a host
of psychological and social reasons. To formally answer the question of
whether or not a young child’s gender identity is fixed and unalterable,
one would have to conduct a randomized psychosocial trial in which, for
half the children, some type of intervention was attempted to alter the
child’s gender identity. It is unlikely that such an “experiment of nurture”
would attract many volunteer parent participants.
For children who present clinically with the diagnosis of GID, long-
term follow-up studies suggest that their gender identity is not necessarily
fixed. The majority of children followed longitudinally appear to lose the
diagnosis of GID when seen in late adolescence or young adulthood, and
appear to have differentiated a gender identity that matches their natal
sex (Drummond, Bradley, Badali-Peterson, & Zucker, 2008; Green, 1987;
Singh, Bradley, & Zucker, 2010; Wallien & Cohen-Kettenis, 2008; Zucker,
2008a).
2
In this sense, one could argue that their childhood gender iden-
tity was alterable—that there was plasticity and malleability—although the
mechanisms that underlie this change are far from fully understood. Thus,
when we provide feedback to parents about their child’s gender identity,
we make use of the empirical information that is currently available about
“natural history.”
2. In our view, gender identity development can be best understood
using a multifactorial model that takes into account biological fac-
tors, psychosocial factors, social cognition, associated psychopathology,
and psychodynamic mechanisms. In the model, biological factors (e.g.,
possible genetic factors, prenatal sex hormones, temperament) are con-
ceptualized as possible predisposing factors for the expression of a
particular gender identity phenotype. They are not conceptualized as
fixed factors leading to invariant gender identity differentiation across
developmental time. The other parameters can be conceptualized as
predisposing, precipitating or perpetuating factors.
Biological Factors
Let us use a dimension of temperament (activity level; AL) as an example
of a possible predisposing biological factor. Activity level, the propensity for
intense physical energy expenditure and the proclivity for rough-and-tumble
play, is a sex-dimorphic trait, with likely genetic and prenatal hormonal
influences (Campbell & Eaton, 1999; Eaton & Enns, 1986). Via a parent-
report measure, we have shown that AL is inverted in children with GID:
Boys with GID have a lower AL than control boys and girls with GID have
a higher AL than control girls. Indeed, girls with GID have a significantly
higher AL than boys with GID (Zucker & Bradley, 1995). If one construes
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376 K. J. Zucker et al.
AL as a temperamental trait, one could conceptualize, for example, a boy
with a low AL to find the behaviors of girls, on average, as more compatible
with his own temperamental style than the behaviors of boys and could,
conceivably, lead to a greater affiliation with girls regarding sex-of-playmate
preference. In turn, this could lead to a greater interest in the toys and
activities of girls which could, in theory, have a feedback effect on the
child’s gender identity, especially during early development when cognitive
reasoning is fairly rigid and black and white.
Frank was a 7-year-old boy who met the DSM criteria for GID. In con-
trast to his two brothers, Frank was described by his parents as more
sensitive and emotional. He had a long history of an avoidance of
rough-and-tumble play, complaining that other boys were both mean
and aggressive. Indeed, one of his brothers, who had a history of severe
disruptive behavior, had often been mean and aggressive towards him.
The problematic relationship with his brother appeared to generalize to
Frank’s view of all boys, as he complained that all boys were mean.
He affiliated primarily with girls and, with them, engaged in a variety of
stereotypical feminine activities. By age 5, he began to voice the wish to
be a girl, stating that if he were a girl, then all of his problems would be
solved.
If one conceptualized Frank’s sensitive temperament as a predisposing,
presumably biological factor, one could argue for an intervention that, in
part, would focus on helping Frank recognize that there are a variety of
ways to be a boy and that there are likely some boys in his social envi-
ronment who are not pervasively mean or aggressive. Exposure of Frank
to other boys whose temperament was more a match to his own could,
in theory, help him to develop a more nuanced understanding of gender:
that there are different ways to be a boy, that one does not have to be
a girl as a fantasy solution to cope with his difficulties with his aggres-
sive brother or the more boisterous boys in the school environment,
andsoon.
Psychosocial Factors
Psychosocial factors constitute a second parameter in case formulation. One
example pertains to the parental response to cross-gender behavior as it
emerges early in development. In our view, it is common for the initial
parental response to cross-gender behavior to be either neutral or encourag-
ing (reinforcement). Early cross-gender behavior is often viewed by parents
as either cute or only a phase.
3
For some parents, they seek out a clini-
cal assessment only after some kind of threshold is crossed, and they now
no longer believe that the behavior is cute or only a phase (Zucker, 2000).
The threshold might pertain to emergent social ostracism in the peer group,
the child’s intense verbalization that he or she either is or wants to be the
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Treatment of Children with Gender Identity Disorder 377
other gender, or other factors. In our case formulation, parental neutrality or
encouragement of cross-gender behavior is viewed as a perpetuating factor
(in relatively rare cases, in which, e.g., the mother overtly cross-dresses her
son, acting out her desire for a daughter, such behavior could be viewed as
a precipitating factor).
Roy was a 4.5-year-old boy with a two-year history of pervasive cross-
gender behavior. At the time of assessment, Roy did not express the wish
to be a girl; rather, he insisted that he was a girl. Since he first began
to display signs of cross-gender behavior, the parental response was to
“go with it.” They bought him stereotypical girls’ toys, allowed him to
wear his mother’s clothes on a daily basis, and would often videotape
his activities when he dressed up as a girl. Apart from his gender identity
development, the parents identified one other major concer n about his
socioemotional development, namely that he would have intense and
extremely disorganized temper tantrums when frustrated. During these
episodes, he was experienced as inconsolable. By history, the parents
reported that they had never “challenged” Roy when he insisted that
he “was” a girl. They came to the assessment wanting to know if this
was “really who Roy was” and if they were doing the “right thing” by
allowing Roy to consistently enact behaviors that allowed him to, in
effect, see himself as a girl.
Social Cognition
In the literature on normative gender development, it has long been noted
that young children do not have a full understanding of gender constancy.
Gender constancy refers to a child’s cognitive understanding that gender is
an invariant part of the self. It has been argued that in the early stages of
gender constancy (e.g., the capacity to self-label oneself as a boy or a girl or
to understand the constancy of gender over time) that children do not fully
understand its invariance. Until children develop the capacity for concrete
operational thought, typically between the ages of 5 and 7 years, they
often conflate gender identity with surface expressions of gender behav-
iors (Kohlberg, 1966; Ruble, Martin, & Berenbaum, 2006). Thus, it is not
particularly unusual for a 4-year-old girl to express the belief that, if she
wore boys’ clothes and engaged in boys’ activities, then this would mean
that she was a boy. It has also been reported in the normative gender devel-
opment literature that younger children tend to have more rigid beliefs than
older children about what boys and girls can do or should do (Ruble et al.,
2006). In our own research, we have reported that children with GID appear
to have a developmental lag in gender constancy acquisition (Zucker et al.,
1999). Although it is unclear if this developmental lag can be understood
as a predisposing factor, it can certainly be understood as a perpetuating
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378 K. J. Zucker et al.
factor (e.g., pervasive enactments of surface cross-gender behaviors could
contribute to the maintenance of cognitive gender confusion).
In some respects, gendered social cognition provides a window into
how children with GID construct a subjective sense of self as a boy or as a
girl. For example, when asked why he wanted to be a girl, one 7-year-old
boy said that it was because he did not like to sweat and only boys sweat.
He also commented that he wanted to be a girl because he liked to read
and girls read better than boys. An 8-year-old boy commented that “girls are
treated better than boys by their parents” and that “the teacher only yells at
the boys.” His view was that, if he was a girl, then his parents would be nicer
to him and that he would get into less trouble at school. One 5-year-old boy
talked about having a “girl’s brain” because he only liked Barbie dolls. In this
particular boy’s treatment, he created drawings of his own brain, writing in
examples of what made his brain more like a girl’s brain and what made his
brain more like a boy’s brain (e.g., when he developed an interest in Lego).
Over time, the drawings of the size of his girl’s brain shrunk and the size of
his boy’s brain expanded.
It could, of course, be argued that gendered social cognition is merely
an epiphenomenon of a more fundamental developmental process pertain-
ing to gender identity, that is, it is simply a way that children attempt to
explain to themselves their gender identity. On the other hand, it could
be argued that young children’s limited understanding of gendered social
cognition calls for caution in assuming how fixed their gender identity is
and that, with development, some children will develop a more flexible
understanding that there are different ways one can be a boy or a girl.
Co-Occurring Psychopathology
When there is co-occurring psychopathology in children with GID, it can be
understood in several ways: a) as a result of social ostracism; b) as related to
generic family risk factors for psychopathology; and c) as a possible cause
of the GID. Regarding this last possibility, Coates and Person (1985), for
example, argued that severe separation anxiety preceded the expression of
feminine behavior in GID boys, which emerged in order “to restore a fantasy
tie to the physically or emotionally absent mother. In imitating ‘Mommy’
[the boy] confuse[s] ‘being Mommy’ with ‘having Mommy.’ [Cross-gender
behavior] appears to allay, in part, the anxiety generated by the loss of the
mother” (p. 708).
In recent years, various clinicians working with children with GID
have noted that some of these youngsters also appear to show signs of
autism spectrum disorder (ASD), particularly at the high-functioning end of
the spectrum. This clinical observation, which is now supported by some
systematic empirical data (de Vries, Noens, Cohen-Kettenis, van Berckelaer-
Onnes, & Doreleijers, 2010), opens up another avenue regarding the role of
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Treatment of Children with Gender Identity Disorder 379
associated psychopathology in children with GID. In our experience, chil-
dren with GID generally show intense, if not obsessional, interests, in cross-
gender activities. This propensity for intense interests may be magnified even
further in those youngsters with a co-occurring ASD. Thus, a bridge between
GID and ASD may be the predisposition for obsessional or focused interests
and extreme rigidity in thinking. Moreover, any attempt to interfere with the
obsessionality may evoke intense anxiety. It is common for parents of these
youngsters to report a series of obsessions (e.g., with a particular color, with
a particular book that must be read over and over in ritualistic fashion, with
specific objects, such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, etc.).
Gender can become a site for obsessionality, perhaps a magnification
of intense interests in typically developing children (DeLoache, Simcock,
& Macara, 2007). One 5-year-old boy with co-occurring GID and ASD had
many obsessional interests that preceded his gender obsession. Unlike his
earlier obsessions, which the parents tried to ignore, they were less certain if
they should ignore his gendered obsessions and, thus, bought him an array
of girls’ toys and allowed him to wear his mother’s clothes on a daily basis.
At the time of assessment, this youngster had been insisting that he was
a girl and, at school, where gendered line-ups were common, would join
the girls in their line. In the course of the assessment, the mother reported
that he was now developing a new obsession: “He now thinks that he is a
computer.” She thought that this was preferable to him believing that he was
a girl. The child psychiatrist who has followed this youngster reported that,
at age 12, the symptoms of GID had r emitted. At age 12, this youngster had
an “obsession” with male heavy metal rock stars (a particular musical genre)
and wore his hair long to emulate them.
David was referred at the age of 5 by a child psychiatrist, following
remarks to his parents that he wished to be a girl and to cut off his
penis. Apart from a GID, David had a number of socioemotional diffi-
culties, including persistent and pervasive struggles with self-regulation,
behavioral rigidity, obsessive behaviors, anxiety, and poor social func-
tioning. In our assessment, we concluded that he met criteria for
Asperger’s Disorder. Play therapy was initiated to help explore David’s
gender dysphoria. As appropriate, additional therapeutic strategies were
drawn upon in order to support the development of self-regulation (e.g.,
with regard to sexualized behavior directed towards the therapist, temper
tantrums), social skills, and the management of areas of obsessive focus.
In the therapeutic context, struggles with the parent-child relationship,
self-concept, peer relations, and anger and guilt were consistent themes.
Over the course of four years in therapy, David evidenced a strong
tendency towards obsessions/restricted interests (e.g., trains, airports,
certain television shows, and book series), with each lasting between
3 to 6 months in duration. The gender-related preoccupation stood out
in terms of its relationship to identity. The gender dysphoria began to
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380 K. J. Zucker et al.
wane around age 7. At age 9 years, in the 112th therapy session, David
initiated discussion about his history of obsessions/restricted interests.
He requested that his therapist write out each of his areas of interest
(in chronological order) and he proceeded to summarize the “rationale”
behind each. Early in the list placed his preoccupation with cross-gender
materials. David paused on this area and reflected it had carried special
meaning for him. He went on to say that this may have been more than
just an interest in this topic area, and that, in fact, he had wanted to
be a girl. He reflected on the reinforcing aspects of many of the femi-
nine interests and behaviors (e.g., the feeling of pretend long hair, how
“beautiful” things looked, etc.), with a focus on the associated visual and
tactile stimulation. When asked about his understanding of his involve-
ment in therapy, starting at age 5 years, David reflected that his parents
may have been concerned about his desire to be a girl, as they knew
that he was “really a boy.” He recalled his parents’ efforts to curtail his
cross-gender behaviors by limiting his time and access. He discussed his
belief that this was not the right approach, and that they should have just
allowed him to grow out of this interest, as he had all of the previous and
subsequent ones.
In reflecting on his development of gender dysphoria, David discussed
his experience of bullying from peers for his gender atypical areas of
interest. He speculated that, in many ways, his desire to become a girl
may have been an effort to avoid the bullying from peers. David again
reiterated the very reinforcing aspects of many of his female-typical inter-
ests. Finally, he reflected on his negative feelings about himself and his
behavior and we considered his gender dysphoria as an effort to cope
with these feelings. David continues to demonstrate a tendency towards
preoccupations but, at present, has no symptoms characteristic of GID.
He continues to benefit from therapeutic support for self-regulation,
social skills, and management of his restricted interests/preoccupations.
Psychodynamic Mechanisms
Psychodynamic mechanisms can be understood, in part, as a transfer of
unresolved conflict and trauma-related experiences from parent to child.
Sometimes these kinds of experiences are consciously recognized by parents
(but, nonetheless, acted out), but certainly not always. Children, themselves,
may vary in their understanding of what drives their behavior.
Tom was a 4-year-old boy with an approximate one-year history of
pervasive cross-gender behavior, including the repeated wish to be a girl.
Tom’s mother was an intense, volatile, and extremely anxious woman,
with strong narcissistic personality traits. She viewed Tom as a perfect
child, until he began to express the desire to be a girl. She then experi-
enced Tom as less than perfect, which, for her, was a severe narcissistic
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Treatment of Children with Gender Identity Disorder 381
injury. Tom’s father played little role in his day-to-day life, working
18-hour days, 7 days/week.
We understood Tom’s GID to develop in the context of the birth of his
younger sister when he was just shy of his third birthday. He felt aban-
doned by his mother, who seemed to transfer much of her psychologic
investment to the sister. She adorned the baby sister in pink (in early
therapy sessions with Tom, he only used the color pink in his numerous
drawings). In part, we conceptualized Tom’s GID as the result of feel-
ing an intense psychologic abandonment by his mother and an intense
jealous rage towards his sister (“If you could be a girl like Suzie, then
mom would pay more attention to you”). In our view, one of the factors
in helping Tom work through his gender identity conflict was to make
him more conscious of his jealous feelings and how they organized his
day-to-day life within the family matrix.
Rose was a 9-year-old girl with a long history of cross-gender behavior,
including the strong desire to be a boy. Rose was raised by her biological
mother. At the age of 4, Rose discovered her mother’s body at the bottom
of the staircase. She had been murdered by a boyfriend. For various
reasons, there were no biological relatives to care for Rose and so she
was adopted at the age of 6.
At the time of assessment, Rose looked like a boy, based on her
hairstyle and clothing style. During the assessment, Rose commented
that she wanted to be a boy because boys were stronger than girls. She
told her adoptive mother that when they walked down the street together
that her mother need not be afraid, because “I look like a boy and no
one will hurt you.” Rose acknowledged that she has had the recurring
thought that, had she been a boy, then she would have been able to
protect her mother from the boyfriend because “boys are stronger than
girls.”
We conceptualized Rose’s desire to be a boy as an unusual symptom
emanating from a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Perhaps due to the
rigid normative social cognitions about gender, Rose had constructed,
for herself, an unusual fantasy solution: had she been a boy (“because”
boys are stronger than girls), she could have saved her mother’s life.
In the case of Roy described above, one issue that was discussed
in the case formulation conference was why the parents had never
attempted to tell Roy that he was, in fact, “a boy.” We wondered about
why the parents were so “paralyzed” in this regard. One element of
the family history that seemed relevant was that his mother had been
subject to a long history of psychological and physical abuse by her
father. We wondered if any signs of more boy-typical behavior on Roy’s
part might be conflated with viewing him as an “abuser-in-the-making,”
like her own father. In addition, Roy’s mother had been subject to very
severe peer ostracism during her own childhood (e.g., being made fun
of because she wore glasses, had dental problems, etc.). These experi-
ences were extremely difficult for her and she cried profusely (30 years
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382 K. J. Zucker et al.
later) as she described them. She worried that, if she said anything to
Roy about his insistence that he was a girl, he would experience this in
the same traumatic way that she experienced the peer group teasing in
her own childhood. Roy’s father also had had a lot of difficult experi-
ences in the peer group because of a speech impediment and he was
also extremely worried that if he said anything to Roy about his girlish
behaviors that Roy would experience this as representing a “defect,” just
like he experienced his speech problem as a defect.
Jim was the last of four boys born to a middle-class family. When seen
at age 4, he had a strong desire to be a girl. Jim’s mother acknowl-
edged a very strong wish for a daughter, as she knew that this was her
“last chance.” Although rare, Jim’s mother’s reaction to giving birth to
a fourth son was consistent with what we have characterized as patho-
logical gender mourning (Zucker, Bradley, & Ipp, 1993). She became
deeply depressed after his birth, wanting little to do with the baby for
a couple of weeks. She had florid dreams about having given birth to
a daughter. When Jim was a year old, her female friends bought her
a life-sized female baby doll. As far as we could tell, Jim’s mother had
little insight into the significance of this gift. She asked plaintively, “Do
you think it’s because my desire for a daughter was so apparent to my
friends?”
In the case formulation conference, we wondered whether or not it
would be useful to organize treatment for the mother around helping
her to understand the meaning of the wish for a daughter and what
it represented for her and to help her mourn the loss of having given
birth to a child of the non-preferred gender. We also wondered how the
mother’s disappointment/despondency might have been transmitted to
Jim across his development.
WHEN TREATMENT IS INDICATED, WHAT ARE
THE RATIONALES AND GOALS FOR TREATMENT AND,
AS SPECIFICALLY AS POSSIBLE, HOW DOES
TREATMENT PROCEED?
When treatment is recommended, it might include the following: a) weekly
individual play psychotherapy for the child; b) weekly parent counseling
or psychotherapy; c) parent-guided interventions in the naturalistic environ-
ment; and d) when required for other psychiatric problems in the child,
psychotropic medication. The goals for treatment are formulated on a case-
by-case basis. In some cases, the focus might be only on the child’s GID,
as the child shows little in the way of associated psychopathology and the
parents are generally functioning well. In other cases, the focus of treatment
is much broader: If the child has other significant socioemotional problems
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Treatment of Children with Gender Identity Disorder 383
and if the parents have significant psychopathology or marital discord, then
these issues also need to be addressed.
If the parents are clear in their desire to have their child feel more com-
fortable in their own skin, that is, they would like to reduce their child’s
desire to be of the other gender, the therapeutic approach is organized
around this goal. Any co-occurring psychopathology is also treated and the
approach depends heavily on the understanding of the sources of the asso-
ciated psychopathology. If parents are uncertain about how best to address
their child’s GID, we of fer to address this further in the course of therapeu-
tic sessions and will suggest to the parents that we hold off on making any
specific decisions about intervention options. Table 3 provides a summary
of treatment recommendations and disposition for 26 children evaluated in
2008.
When we conduct open-ended play psychotherapy (or simply talk ther-
apy) with children, like any psychotherapeutic intervention for any issue,
therapy begins with educating the child about the reason that they are in
therapy. This is tailored to the child’s developmental level and cognitive
sophistication. Some children are simply told that they are going to meet
with an individual therapist to understand better their gender-related feel-
ings and, during sessions, they are free to play with whatever they want
(boys’ toys, girls’ toys, dress-up clothing, neutral and educational activities,
etc.), to draw, to talk about day-to-day life, to report on their dreams, and
so on. Principles of confidentiality are reviewed.
For other children, they have a very sophisticated understanding of
why they are in treatment and the educative process is less formal. One
4-year-old girl, for example, had actually asked her parents to take her
to see a therapist (she was very intelligent) because she was confused
about why she wanted to be a boy. After the assessment, she seamlessly
entered into a therapeutic process about her gender feelings. Other chil-
dren are substantially more guarded and require a much longer period of
time before they are comfortable discussing their feelings. One 3-year-old
boy, for example, in the course of a two-year treatment, was never able to
talk about his day-to-day life with his therapist: It was all enacted literally
via play with repetitive family scenarios in which he labeled the charac-
ters as himself and his parents. In both of these cases, the GID remitted
in full.
Individual open-ended psychotherapy enables many children with GID
to discuss and to play out their gender identity issues, i t affords them the
opportunity to make sense of their internal representational w orld, and, in
general, to master various developmental tasks with which they may be
struggling. There is a reasonably large psychoanalytic case report literature
on GID, for which the interested reader can glean some good examples
of the process of open-ended psychotherapy (see Zucker, 2006a, 2008b;
Zucker & Bradley, 1995).
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TABLE 3 Treatment recommendations for cases evaluated in 2008 (N = 26)
ID Sex Age
Individual
Therapy
Parent
Therapy Medication Other Comment
1 F 10 No Yes On Concerta for
ADHD prior to
assessment
Support provided to
child by school
psychologist
Diagnosed with ODD and
ADHD
Outpatient services difficult to
access in community
2 F 7 Yes Yes Consult
recommended for
ADHD
Feedback provided
to school
psychologist
Dropped out of treatment;
mother sought advice from a
nurse practitioner who
specialized in naturopathy;
significant discord between
parents, who were
separated; diagnosed with
ODD and ADHD
3 F 5 Yes Yes No Mourning the sudden death of
father was one focus of
treatment
4 M 6 Yes Yes Consult
recommended for
ADHD
In day treatment for
behavioral
problems
(diagnosed with
ODD and ADHD)
Father seen in counseling;
mother refused treatment
(has bipolar disorder and on
long-term disability); parents
separated; father has custody
5 M 9 No No No Sibling of ID 2; subthreshold
for GID; feminine behaviors
of no concern to mother;
father “denies” observing
any feminine behaviors
6 M 5 No Yes No Feedback provided
to school
psychologist and
to child protection
agency
Subthreshold for GID;
behavioral problems at
school; in foster care
384
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7 M 3 No No No Recommendations
to parents for
interventions in
naturalistic
environment
Family lives in a small town,
with no mental health
resources available
8 M 7 No No No Recommendations
to parents for
interventions in
naturalistic
environment
Parents wanted to try
interventions on their own
prior to considering formal
therapy
9 M 6 Yes Yes No Recommendations
to parents for
interventions in
naturalistic
environment
When informed that the
“odds” of persistent gender
dysphoria were quite low
for the patient, the mother
“sobbed” with relief. She did
not feel that formal therapy
was, therefore, required, that
she could “handle the rest”
on her own.
10 M 8 Yes Yes No Referred for immediate surgery
for undescended testicles
11 F 12 Yes Yes On Celexa, Strattera,
and Seroquel prior
to assessment
Patient had transitioned to
living as a boy prior to
assessment; diagnosed with
PDD-NOS
12 M 8 Yes Yes No Raised by maternal
grandmother; both
biological parents were drug
addicts; father diagnosed
with Schizophrenia
(Continued)
385
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TABLE 3 (Continued)
ID Sex Age
Individual
Therapy
Parent
Therapy Medication Other Comment
13 M 7 Yes Yes No Consult
recommended for
pharmacologic
treatment for
anxiety
Diagnosed with ASD prior to
our assessment; referred to a
child psychiatrist in private
practice
14 M 6 No No No Recommendations
to parents for
interventions in
naturalistic
environment
Parents wanted to try
interventions on their own
prior to considering formal
therapy
15 M 7 Yes Yes No Parents, who were separated,
refused treatment;
parent-initiated a social
gender change in child after
assessment; diagnosed with
Separation Anxiety Disorder
16 M 6 Yes Yes No query ODD
17 M 4 Yes Yes No
18 F 10 Yes Yes No adopted
19 M 6 Yes Yes No Recommendations
to parents for
interventions in
naturalistic
environment
Parents wanted to try
interventions on their own;
query ASD; r/o chronic
motor tic disorder; local
mental health resources not
available
386
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20 M 3 Yes Yes No Co-occurring disorder of sex
development (46,XX
ova-testicular DSD); male
gender assignment shortly
after birth; speech and
language delay; significant
behavior problems
21 F 10 Yes Yes Yes On Concerta prior
to assessment;
Risperdal
recommended
adopted at 20 months from
Russia; language delay;
Reactive Attachment
Disorder (in remission);
query PDD-NOS; significant
behavior problems (one
brief in-patient
hospitalization)
22 M 6 Yes Yes No Marfan syndrome; significant
obsessional behavior; query
Separation Anxiety Disorder;
significant family stress,
including OCD in older
sister; discontinued
treatment because of
distance and family stress;
referred to local resources
for continued therapeutic
support
23 M 4 Yes Yes No Parents agreed to therapy, but
then did not follow up
24 F 5 Yes Yes No
25 M 4 Yes Yes No
26 F 5 No Yes No Referred mother for local
mental health support
Note. F = natal female; M = natal male; ADHD = attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder; ASD = autism spectrum disorder; ODD = oppositional defiant disorder;
OCD = obsessive-compulsive disorder; PDD-NOS = pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.
387
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388 K. J. Zucker et al.
With parents, the focus of treatment that is specific to GID consid-
ers two issues: a) the potential role of parental factors in the genesis and
maintenance of the GID, and b) naturalistic interventions. For parents for
whom there may be significant psychodynamic and interpersonal factors in
the genesis/maintenance of GID, we attempt to work on these issues. For
example, we have posited that “identification with the aggressor” may be
one factor involved in GID in girls (Zucker & Bradley, 1995). One 7-year-
old girl, for example, had a long-standing conflicted relationship with her
father. Her father was extremely critical, abrasive, and mean to this her.
She had numerous socioemotional problems: extreme oppositional behav-
ior with the parents, intense jealousy directed toward a younger sister, many
sensory sensitivities that resulted in ritualistic behaviors, and was, i n gen-
eral, a very challenging child to parent. A large part of the treatment with
the father focused on discussing how his rage toward his child was not
helpful and likely made matters worse.
When parental psychopathology revolves around a gender-related axis,
effort is made to explore the impact of this on their feelings toward the
child. One mother of an 8-year-old boy wanted little to do with him. She
was extremely depressed and withdrawn from her parenting role. She had
been date raped as an adolescent and recalled that she dealt with this
by becoming promiscuous (“Better to fuck them than to get fucked”). She
acknowledged that she hated men. The only maneuver this boy could use
to be close to his mother was to comb her hair (she was a hairdresser).
In our view, these kinds of pathological processes require a long time to
work on in psychotherapy with parents and are not particularly amenable
to brief interventions.
When parents have significant reservations about setting limits on their
child’s cross-gender behaviors and to provide alternative activities, this
requires considerable discussion. In our work, we emphasize that author-
itarian limit setting is not the goal (limit setting per se is not the goal of
treatment, but part of a series of interventions); rather, the goal is to help
the child feel more comfortable in his or her own skin. Limit setting is dis-
cussed in context of the overall case formulation. If, for example, a young
boy is driven by the desire to cross-dress, we explore with parents their
understanding of what might underlie it.
For example, one 8-year-old boy was cared for by his mother (the
father had died in a car accident) who worked two jobs. He was often
left in the care of a neighbor while his mother worked the swing shift.
In this context, he began to cross-dress and created a transitional mother
object that he slept with. Helping the mother understand the possible link
between his separation anxiety and his gender identity issues motivated her
to spend more time discussing with him why she needed to work long
hours, provided him with pictures of her to sleep with while she worked,
called him a couple of times prior to his bedtime, and made more of an
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Treatment of Children with Gender Identity Disorder 389
effort to be with him on her days off. This resulted in a significant reduction
in both the separation anxiety and his desire to be a girl. In general, our
approach with parents is to make the point that the surface behaviors of
GID are, in effect, “symptoms” and that symptoms can best be helped
if the underlying mechanisms are better understood. As an example, we
might explain to parents of girls that forcing them to wear dresses or other
feminine clothing (which creates severe anxiety in many girls with GID)
should not be the focus of treatment and that it would likely be unhelp-
ful. Instead, it would be more helpful to focus on the underlying gender
dysphoria.
In the naturalistic environment, we typically target the improvement
of same-sex peer relations, since peer relationships are often the site of
gender identity consolidation (Maccoby, 1998; Meyer-Bahlburg, 2002). For
young children, this can be implemented via parent-arranged play dates
with temperamentally compatible same-sex peers; with older children, this
can be implemented via enrollment in community activities, such as gym-
nastics, drama clubs, and team sports. The goal here is to see if children
with GID are able to develop a broader range of friendships that include
same-sex peers. For parents who are free of major life stressors or signifi-
cant psychopathology that interferes with their parenting role, this task can
be implemented fairly easily; however, when parents are overwhelmed with
their own difficulties, they often feel depleted and unable to work on these
kinds of interventions.
WHAT IS THE DISPOSITION OF REFERRED CASES FOR WHICH NO
CLINICALLY SIGNIFICANT GENDER-VARIANT
BEHAVIOR IS OBSERVED?
In our clinic, we almost never receive a referral in which we conclude from
the intake interview that the case is a false positive. About 70% of the chil-
dren we evaluate meet the complete DSM criteria for GID; the remainder of
referrals are subthreshold (gender variant), some of whom had met the full
criteria when younger. Of the 26 cases evaluated in 2008 (Table 3), only one
youngster (ID 6) showed no signs of GID although he had voiced to the
referring child psychiatrist a strong wish to be a girl. Psychological testing
confirmed the absence of clinically significant gender identity issues. In this
case, this youngster was dealing with the stressor of having been placed in
foster care because of maternal neglect and had significant behavior prob-
lems at school and at home. Another youngster (ID 5) was the sibling of
ID 2 and was subthreshold for GID. As noted in Table 3, the mother did
not have any concerns about his feminine behavior and the father denied
observing any. Because his sister had a severe GID, oppositional behav-
ior, and ADHD, and because the parents had significant relational discord
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390 K. J. Zucker et al.
(they were separated), the focus of the recommendations were directed
elsewhere.
The question posed by the guest editors of this special issue of
the Journal of Homosexuality is relevant especially for children who are
subthreshold for GID. Do these youngsters still have clinically significant
gender identity issues that need to be monitored or even treated? In our
view, the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. Some children may
be subthreshold for GID, yet, the clinical impression is that these children
may well be struggling with their gender identity and, for these children,
a trial of therapy can certainly be beneficial to explore the issue further.
If they have substantial other psychologic or psychiatric issues, these can
also be a focus of treatment. One could argue that some children who are
subthreshold for GID may be at risk for the later development of a full-blown
GID (e.g., see Zucker, 2004, 2006b).
HOW ARE THE RELATIVE RISKS AND BENEFITS OF TREATMENT
AS WELL AS THE IMPACT OF TREATMENT ON OUTCOME
EXPLAINED TO CAREGIVERS?
In providing feedback to parents, we attempt to articulate our case formu-
lation in a manner that is understandable. We identify the factors that we
have found useful in understanding the child and the family. Parents vary
in their psychologic sophistication and capacity for reflective functioning, so
feedback is done in a way that is client centered. We provide a rationale for
our treatment recommendations.
In the era of the Internet, some parents are quite familiar with the con-
troversies about treatment of children with GID; others are not. For parents
who are interested in discussing the philosophical differences among care
providers, we discuss the varying perspectives. Benefits of treatment that we
argue in favor of include the reduction in gender dysphoria, the attendant
social ostracism that can ensue from GID persistence, the complexities of
sex-reassignment surgery and its biomedical treatment, and the importance
of reducing family psychopathology and stress, when it is present. The risks
of treatment are discussed: Perhaps the child will not respond to the treat-
ment; perhaps the parents will find it too stressful to attempt naturalistic
interventions. As noted earlier, we explain that the goal of treatment is not
to prevent the child from developing a future homosexual sexual orienta-
tion. For some parents, this is a non-issue; for other parents, it remains their
goal. One concern parents have is that their child may go underground with
his or her gender dysphoric feelings. We are mindful of this concern (the
development of a false self in the Winnicottian sense) and emphasize that
this is not a good outcome–the goal is to help the child work through their
gender dysphoric feelings.
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Treatment of Children with Gender Identity Disorder 391
IS PREVENTION OF ADULT TRANSSEXUALISM
A REASONABLE TREATMENT GOAL, AND GIVEN THE LOW
FREQUENCY WITH WHICH GID PERSISTS INTO ADULTHOOD,
HOW IS IT POSSIBLE TO DETERMINE THE EFFICACY OF
TREATMENT IN ATTAINING THAT GOAL?
... we cannot rule out the possibility that early successful treatment
of childhood GID will diminish the role of a continuation of GID into
adulthood. If so, successful treatment would also reduce the need for the
long and difficult process of sex reassignment which includes hormonal
and surgical procedures with substantial medical risks and complications.
(Meyer-Bahlburg, 2002, p. 362)
Relatively little dispute exists regarding the prevention of transsexualism,
though evidence about the effectiveness of treatment in preventing adult
transsexualism is also virtually nonexistent. (Cohen-Kettenis & Pfäfflin,
2003, p. 120)
The guest editors of this special issue have posed a provocative question
about the prevention of transsexualism (GID) in adulthood. Here, we can
pose an ancillary question to illustrate, in part, the centrality of social val-
ues: Is prevention of homosexuality a reasonable treatment goal? On this
point, most secular clinicians would answer “no.” In our own clinic, we
have never advocated for the prevention of homosexuality as a treatment
goal for GID in children. At the same time, we are sensitive to the fact that
some parents bring their child to the clinic, in part, because they are wor-
ried that their child will grow up to be gay or lesbian (for all the reasons
one might imagine—parental homophobia, worries about social ostracism,
worries about HIV/AIDS, worries that this will result in a more difficult life,
cultural factors, religious factors, etc.).
Over the years, our approach has been a psychoeducational one and
also a pragmatic one: a) we explain to parents that there are no empiri-
cal studies that suggest that alteration of a child’s gender identity will also
alter their eventual sexual orientation; b) that homosexuality per se is not
considered a mental disorder; c) that gay men and lesbians can lead pro-
ductive and satisfying lives (as banal as this sounds) and that, over time, if
their child develops a homoerotic sexual orientation, then it will be their
job (and ours) to support their child in adapting to whatever stressors may
be associated with their sexual identity. In our experience, the majority of
parents are satisfied with this psychoeducational approach and, for some, it
involves mourning the loss of the expected heterosexual child and whatever
fantasies and aspirations are associated with this. Many of the parents that
we work with do not have a particular problem if their child were to grow
up gay or lesbian. Many of these parents do, however, hold the aspiration
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392 K. J. Zucker et al.
that they would like their child to be comfortable in his or her skin. In other
words, they can see that growing up transsexual or transgender may augur
a more complicated life.
Although we do not have a particular quarrel with the prevention of
transsexualism as a treatment goal for children with GID, we believe that
this should be contextualized. If, for example, children with GID who per-
sist in their desire to be of the other gender showed a better psychosocial
adjustment and adaptation than children with GID who desist (e.g., become
gay or lesbian or heterosexual without gender dysphoria), then one could,
quite reasonably, question the prevention of transsexualism as a legiti-
mate treatment goal. If a child grew up comfortable in their own skin, but
was generally miserable otherwise, one could hardly argue with unabashed
enthusiasm for the prevention of transsexualism.
From a developmental perspective, we take a very different approach
when we work with adolescents with GID than when we work with children
with GID. This is because we believe that there is much less evidence that
GID can remit in adolescents than in children. Whether this is due to differ-
ent populations of clients seen in adolescence versus childhood or whether
this is due to a narrowing of plasticity and malleability in gender identity
differentiation by the time of adolescence is open to debate. But, if the clin-
ical consensus is that a particular adolescent is very much likely to persist
down a pathway toward hormonal and sex-reassignment surgery, then our
therapeutic approach is one that supports this pathway on the grounds that
it will lead to a better psychosocial adaptation and quality of life (Zucker,
Bradley, Owen-Anderson, et al., 2011).
Because the treatment literature is lacking in terms of rigorous compar-
ative evaluations (e.g., Treatment X vs. Treatment Y or Treatment X vs. no
treatment, etc.), one has to rely on a patchwork of empirical evidence about
natural history. Thus, for example, natural history data suggest, to date, a
much higher rate of desistance of GID in child samples than in adolescent
or adult samples (Zucker et al., 2011).
The guest editors have made reference to the low frequency with which
GID persists into adulthood and the implications of this fact in the evalu-
ation of treatment efficacy. Persistence rates have varied fairly substantially
in long-term follow-up studies. For example, Green (1987) reported that
only 1 of 44 previously feminine boys appeared to be gender dysphoric
at the time of follow-up. In contrast, Wallien and Cohen-Kettenis (2008)
reported that 50% of 18 GID girls were persisters at follow up. In our own
follow-up studies, we have found a persistence rate of 12% for GID girls
(n = 25; Drummond et al., 2008) and a persistence rate of 13.3% for GID
boys (n = 135; Singh et al., 2010). Thus, there is a fair bit of variation in
persistence rates.
How can this variation be understood? One possibility is sampling dif-
ferences. Another possibility pertains to the degree of GID in childhood.
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Treatment of Children with Gender Identity Disorder 393
Both Wallien and Cohen-Kettenis (2008) and Singh et al. (2010) showed
that several metrics of GID severity in childhood predicted persistence at
follow-up. Another possibility is to contextualize the natural history data.
Is there really such a thing as natural history for GID or does its devel-
opmental course vary as a function of contextual factors? If, as in our clinic,
treatment is recommended to reduce the likelihood of GID persistence, per-
haps the data can only be interpreted in that context. In any event, we
require more comparative data to draw conclusions about the natural history
of GID in children and its relation to contextual factors.
WHAT CONSTITUTES A SUCCESSFUL OUTCOME? WHAT
CONSTITUTES A TREATMENT FAILURE?
If one goal of treatment is to reduce the gender dysphoria, then, by defini-
tion, a successful outcome would be its remission and a failure would be
its persistence. If, however, a successful outcome also takes into account
a child’s more general well-being and adaptation to various developmental
tasks, then the definitions of success and failure must be broader. Consider,
for example, the vignette described earlier of the 7-year-old girl who had
an extremely strained relationship with her father. Six years after therapy
commenced (and still continues), the GID has fully remitted and there has
been a lessening of the sensory sensitivities and rituals. Although this now
young adolescent girl functions reasonably well at school and has friends,
parent-child relations remain severely strained and there continues to be
substantial parental psychopathology (in each parent and in their marriage).
Success? Failure? In between?
For Tom, the 4-year-old boy who experienced his younger sister’s birth
as an extreme threat to his relationship with his mother, at the age of 13 his
GID has remitted fully. In the course of many years of therapy, he has
intermittently struggled with various issues (episodic encopresis, peer con-
flicts, behavioral compliance with parental expectations), but he functions
extremely well at school and has many close friends. Although his devel-
opment has been marked with various stressors and challenges, we would
gauge his current outcome as pretty successful.
For children whose gender dysphoria persisted into adolescence or
adulthood, some are functioning quite well; others are not. One natal male,
originally seen at age 5, was seen for follow up at age 35. At follow up,
she was living as a woman, but had elected to neither take exogenous
female hormones or to have genital reassignment surgery (“A woman does
not need a vagina to be a woman”). Because this individual was quite over-
weight, idiopathic gynecomastia was sufficient for the appearance of female
breasts. She had a boyfriend who was sexually attracted to “she-males.” She
engaged in sex work, also attracting men interested in she-males. She used,
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394 K. J. Zucker et al.
on a daily basis, oxycontin and heroin. She was on long-term psychiatric
disability, with various diagnoses: ADHD, bipolar disorder, and adult baby
syndrome (she and her boyfriend planned on getting an apartment and
creating a baby’s room for her). Apart from the ADHD, the patient had no
complaints about her life. Success? Failure?
Another natal female was originally seen for assessment at the age of
12 years and followed up at the age of 26. He had transitioned to the male
gender in adolescence, but had not sought out either hormonal suppression
or cross-sex hor monal therapy. He was very content living as a man. Ben
worked full time, owned his own house, and had had long-term r elation-
ships with women. However, he struggled with severe alcohol abuse, abused
recreational drugs, had been frequently arrested for getting into fights while
intoxicated, and was occasionally suicidal. Success? Failure? In between?
Our long-term follow-up studies of both girls and boys with GID sug-
gest that many of these youngsters, regardless of their later gender identity
and sexual orientation, are a psychiatrically vulnerable group (Drummond,
2006; Drummond et al., 2008; Singh et al., 2010). Although some of this
vulnerability might be understood in relation to the stressors associated with
an atypical gender identity and/or sexual orientation, it is our belief that it
is also related to other risk factors, including biological and psychosocial
parameters within their families.
NOTES
1. We have used Clifft’s (1986) guidelines for confidentiality in reporting clinical material.
2. These children are sometimes referred to as desisters, while those who do not “lose” the
diagnosis are referred to as persisters.
3. There are more parents nowadays who interpret the cross-gender identification as a marker of
the child’s “essential” gender identity (Brill & Pepper, 2008; Dreger, 2009; Kilodavis, 2009).
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... So-called reparative or conversion "therapy" was a method employed by mental health professionals to redirect or "repair" their gay clients' "unnatural" inclinations through aversive means (Bright, 2004;Callaghan, 2018). Today, all forms of reparative therapy are considered to be unethical and harmful (Callaghan, 2018) and yet not long ago prominent Toronto psychologist Kenneth Zucker advocated for reparative treatments such as refusing children to wear cross-gender clothing, playing only with same-gender children, removing cross-gender toys or items, and participating in stereotypical activities for one's gender (Zucker, et al., 2012). This was enforced while the child underwent therapy to ascertain the underlying reasons for desiring to be the other gender and the parents were advised to keep stricter gendered boundaries (Zucker, et al., 2012). ...
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Keira Bell’s case against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust challenged the notion that children can consent to certain forms of gender-affirming care, and the subsequent trial has sparked global effects. This paper considers the unconscious fantasies and anxieties that surround both this trail and trans childhood more broadly. Although psychic phenomenon, the normalized defenses of adults continue to inform policy, healthcare, and have a significant impact on the materiality of trans lives. Drawing from Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, I argue that gender non-conforming children become an extension of their caregiver’s subjectivity and provide a unique container for adult’s projected, unbearable thoughts and feelings. In particular, Young-Bruehl’s use of three Freudian personality structures is helpful for tracing symptomatic expressions of childism and conceptualizing the different unconscious motivational forces behind otherwise disparate, public discourses of concern for the child’s wellbeing.
Article
The meta-theoretical resource of critical realism (CR) is deployed in order to examine transgender and healthcare. CR treads a middle way between positivism and postmodernism, within post-Popperian discussions of the philosophy of natural and social science. It focuses on the conditions of possibility for the emergence of a phenomenon under investigation. In this case, the focus is on the emergence of debates about transgenderism in healthcare. These have been technological (about the prospect of biomedical solutions to personal problems) and ideological, with the enlarged salience of identity politics and our currently unresolved “culture wars.” Identity politics have brought a focus on epistemological privilege or “lived experience” and on rights to healthcare being driven by consumer choice. The current contestation and its history are discussed in relation to our four planar social being (nature, relationality, socio-economic structures, and our particular personalities) and future scenarios are rehearsed.
Research
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A collection of papers from psychology, sociology, law, medicine, education and parents of transgender-declaring young people. We aim is to restore academic debate to an issue that has become ideological rather than empirical/scientific and which is destroying the lives of children, adolescents and their families.
Book
Full-text available
This publication is a compilation of articles and submissions made by a number of Australian professionals concerning the transgendering of children and adolescents. They come from a variety of professional backgrounds, including paediatrics, psychiatry, psychology, the law, history, parenting, women’s sports and sociology. They raise questions about the lack of a scientific evidence base, the lack of data on the long-term consequences of medical gender affirmation protocols, and the surreptitious avoidance of the key medical ethic, ‘First, do no harm’. They also consider legal issues and the consequences of embodying ‘trans rights’ in law and policy – for example, the impact on girls’ and women’s sports of allowing trans identified males to compete with, and against, female people. A wide-ranging government sponsored inquiry is needed urgently. The initial proposal to undertake this compilation elicited 500 pages of Australian articles and submissions from a range of individuals and groups. This compilation includes a representative selection of those articles and submissions. There has been, in fact, an enormous body of material addressing the transgendering of children and adolescents published over the past two or three years. As senior lawyers have warned, it is very likely in the years to come that there will be a large amount of litigation against doctors, hospitals and government health departments from people who deeply regret their medical transition, unless this controversial area of medicine is better evaluated and regulated. One of the key objectives of this publication is to promote the campaign for a national, public inquiry to look into the transgendering of children and adolescents. Specifically, the issues to be considered include the following: 1. How strong is the evidence-base for the psychological benefits to be gained from medically assisted transition, and what are the medical risks? 2. What information do parents and young people need to have before they are able to give fully informed consent? 3. How should the medical profession be regulated to ensure so that no child or young person is given life-altering and irreversible medical treatment to address gender dysphoria or gender confusion issues without a full examination of the aetiology of those feelings and an exploration of alternatives to masculinisation or feminisation of their bodies? 4. What are the most effective therapeutic approaches to address gender dysphoria? 5. What changes to anti-discrimination laws need to be made to ensure that the law protects gender diverse people from discrimination while not requiring schools, sports organisations, medical professionals and others to affirm a person’s self-declared gender identity when they have serious doubts that this is in the young person’s best interests or the interests of others? 6. What is the impact of gender identity policies on girls and young women, specifically in terms of the safeguarding implications in women-only spaces and in the female sports category when males have a demonstrable performance advantage that creates unfair and unsafe competition?
Article
An increasing amount of literature revealed a link between GD and ASD. Both GD and ASD are complex and heterogeneous conditions characterized by a large variety of presentations. Studies have reported that individuals with GD tend to have higher prevalence rates of autistic traits in comparison to the general population. The purpose of this commentary is to pro- vide, through the description of a clinical case, our reading and a possible interpretation of the correlation of these two condi- tions in light of the several methodological limitations found in literature. We hypothesize that the traits often classified as autistic could be more accurately related to the distress and discomfort evoked by GD. The autistic traits of individuals with GD as forms of psychological defenses and coping mechanisms aimed at deal- ing with socio-relational and identity problems are discussed.
Chapter
Full-text available
Because gender identity disorder (GID) in children is relatively uncommon, most child clinicians and researchers are likely to have had very little direct experience with it. In this chapter, I provide a selective overview of our knowledge about children with GID. In keeping with the general mission of this volume, where appropriate, I focus on the interface between typical and atypical development in my consideration of children with GID.
Article
Full-text available
Almost 50 years of clinical observation and research on children with gender identity disorder have provided useful information on phenomenology, diagnostic and assessment procedures, associated psychopathology, tests of etiological hypotheses, and natural history. In contrast, best practice guidelines and evidence-based therapeutics have lagged sorely behind these other domains. Accordingly, the therapist must rely on the “clinical wisdom” that has accumulated and to utilize largely untested case formulation conceptual models to inform treatment approaches and decisions. Because of this state of affairs, dogmatic assertions about best practice should be avoided.
Chapter
Gender identity refers to a person's basic sense of self as male or female. Gender dysphoria refers to the distress one experiences when one's gender identity does not match one's assigned sex at birth, which often leads to the strong desire to become a member of the other gender. Research suggests that gender identity differentiation is the result of a complex interplay among biological and psychosocial factors. There are various therapeutic approaches, including both psychosocial and biomedical interventions, designed to reduce gender dysphoria.
Conference Paper
A gender difference in motor activity level (AL) is well established for children, but questions about the existence and nature of an infant sex difference remain. To assess these questions, we applied meta-analytic procedures to summarize 46 infancy studies comprising 78 male-female motor activity comparisons. Our results showed that, as with children, male infants were more active than females. Objective measures of infant AL estimated the size of this difference to be 0.2 standard deviations, though subjective parent-report measures estimated the difference to be smaller. We argue that this early sex difference in activity level is biologically based. However, socialization processes, such as gender-differentiated expectations and experiences, in conjunction with further sex-differentiated biological developments, amplify this early difference to produce the larger gender differences in activity found during childhood. Copyright (C) 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Book
Transgenderism and Intersexuality in Childhood and Adolescence: Making Choices presents an overview of the research, clinical insights, and ethical dilemmas relevant to clinicians who treat intersex youth and their families. Exploring gender development from a cross-cultural perspective, esteemed scholar Peggy T. Cohen-Kettenis and experienced practitioner Friedemann Pfäfflin focus on assessment, diagnosis, and treatment issues. To bridge research and practical application, they include numerous case studies, definitions of relevant terminology, and salient chapter summaries.
Article
Almost 50 years of clinical observation and research on children with gender identity disorders have provided useful information on phenomenology, diagnostic and assessment procedures, associated psychopathology, tests of etiological hypotheses, and natural history. In contrast, the best practice guidelines and evidence-based therapeutics have lagged sorely behind these other domains. Accordingly, the therapist must rely on the “clinical wisdom” that has accumulated and to utilize largely untested case formulation conceptual models to inform treatment approaches and decisions. Because of this state of affairs, dogmatic assertions about the best practice should be avoided.