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Prof talks gender development, mental health

Olson says transgender children supported by their family less likely to feel anxiety, depression

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Kristina Olson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, shed light on her team’s recent research on gender development and the mental health of transgender and gender non-conforming children Wednesday. Her talk, ​“When Sex and Gender Collide: Early Childhood Gender Diversity,” was the most recent installment of the Michael S. Goodman ’74 Memorial Lecture Series.

Olson first emphasized the effect sex and gender social categories have on people’s lives regardless of the society into which they are born. Children use these social categorizations very early in development to make judgments on things such as who to interact with or which clothes to wear, Olson said.

For her study, Olson worked with 300 transgender children between ages three and 12, who have socially — but not medically — transitioned. She compared clothing, peer and toy preferences of trans and cisgender children who identified as the same gender and discovered that these two groups shared similar preferences. She also compared the preferences of gender non-conforming children with transgender children and found a lot of variability.

Olson talked about gender stability and presented her findings on children’s perception of their own and other’s gender stability. Her research found that almost everyone thinks that their gender will be stable at a young age.

Although the ways of understanding gender and its influence on the human experience have been central to the study of human psychology for decades, nearly all research has focused on people who experience gender identity that aligns with one’s sex, Olson said. She pointed out that this past research is not representative of transgender individuals, telling the story of Jazz Jenning, a transgender television and YouTube personality who socially transitioned as a child.

In the final part of her lecture, Olson spoke about the mental health of transgender children. “It is almost a moral responsibility” to address the mental health of “a sample which there has been little literature about,” Olson said.  Transgender children are more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to non-transgender children, she added.

Family support is essential for the mental health of transgender youth as there is clear evidence between familial support and decreased anxiety, she said.

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