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Kids With Gender Noncomformity at Increased Risk for Abuse

Study Highlights Risks Associated With Gender Nonconformity
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

girl wearing football garb

Feb. 20, 2012 -- Boys won’t always “act” like boys, and girls won’t always “act” like girls. Some boys may choose dolls over tools, and some girls prefer cars, trucks, and football to Barbie dolls and princesses.

Unfortunately, kids who tend to make choices that are not considered typical for their gender are at higher risk of being abused by their parents or other family members, and are at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This is the main finding of a study that will appear in the March 2012 issue of Pediatrics.

An anxiety disorder that develops after witnessing or surviving a traumatic event, such as physical or sexual abuse, PTSD symptoms may include vivid flashbacks, edginess, and sleeping problems. PTSD has been linked to risky behaviors such as unprotected sex, substance abuse, and physical symptoms such as chronic pain.

“We know that kids who are gender-nonconforming do get bullied more, but this paper looked at abuse by parents or other adults, including sexual abuse,” says study author Andrea Roberts. She is a research associate in the department of society, human development, and health at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

Gender Expression

Exactly why these kids are at increased risk for abuse and PTSD is not fully understood.

“Parents may be uncomfortable with their child’s gender expression and may think that parenting can change behaviors, so they may become harsher,” she says. “Some parents think kids who are non-conforming will grow up to be a gay or lesbian, and if they are not comfortable with this, they may think they can change a kid’s future.”

“The common perception that they are or will be homosexual is not accurate ... most are not,” Roberts tells WebMD.

Her advice is clear: “Accept your children and let go of how you thought things were going to be,” she says.

In the study, the researchers polled 9,000 young adults who took part in the Growing Up Today study in 1996. They were asked to recall their childhood experiences. Questions were about favorite toys and games, roles they took while playing, media characters they admired, and whether they felt feminine or masculine.

They also were asked about physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, and were screened for PTSD. The study did not ask kids about how they dressed or wore their hair during childhood.

Men and women who were drawn to toys, TV shows, and characters that were typically associated with the opposite sex were more likely to report sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. Rates of PTSD were almost twice as high among young adults who were gender-nonconforming in childhood when compared with those who were not, the study shows.

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