When a person feels strongly that they don’t identify with the biological gender they were born with, the American Psychiatric Association terms them as having gender dysphoria. Although children as young as age four may express gender nonconformity, many times gender dysphoria doesn’t become evident to the person until they reach puberty and realize they are not comfortable with the changes going on in their bodies. For a gender dysphoria diagnosis, the person must feel these symptoms for at least six months. Recently, however, some researchers have been exploring a new development in gender dysphoria that seems to occur very suddenly and without the child having expressed any prior distress with their physical gender. This is called Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD).
What is Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria?
Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria is a term that has sprung up within the past couple of years. It is important to note that ROGD has not been established as a distinct syndrome. This dysphoria has been casually (not scientifically) observed.
In ROGD, an adolescent or young adult who has always identified as their physical (birth) gender suddenly starts to identify as another gender. Prior to this, the child would not have met the criteria for gender dysphoria nor would they have displayed any discomfort with their gender. Additionally, often multiple friends within the same peer group simultaneously identify with another gender and become gender dysphoric around the same time.
Why is ROGD Controversial?
Recently a Brown University researcher published a study “to empirically describe teens and young adults who did not have symptoms of gender dysphoria during childhood but who were observed by their parents to rapidly develop gender dysphoria symptoms over days, weeks or months during or after puberty.” The study author was Lisa Littman, an assistant professor of the practice of behavioral and social sciences at Brown’s School of Public Health.
Littman surveyed over 250 parents whose children had suddenly developed gender dysphoria symptoms. Of the parents who answered the survey, about 45 percent reported that their child had increased their social media use and that the child had one or more friends who became transgender-identified around the same time as their child.
This led to Littman’s hypothesis that gender dysphoria could be at least partially spread by social contagion. She proposed that social media and a child’s peers could cause the child to embrace certain beliefs, such as the idea that feeling uneasy with the gender you were born with meant you were gender dysphoric. Because many RODG teens also push for medical transition to another gender, Littman suggested that this could actually be a harmful coping tool in the same way that drugs, alcohol or substance abuse are negative coping mechanisms.
Transgender advocates fiercely criticized Littman’s study, saying it was methodologically flawed because Littman only interviewed parents and not the transgender-identifying children themselves. They also called the study “antitransgender” and a denial of transgender affirmation while citing the fact that a person who is questioning their gender and seeking answers would naturally read up on the subject and spend time with supportive friends who may have similar thoughts and feelings. Advocates pointed out that a true gender dysphoria diagnosis requires evaluation by specialists, while Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria only required the parent’s perspective.
As a result of the criticism, Brown withdrew its press release about the study and wrote a statement explaining its decision to conduct a post-publication re-review. They worried that the study “could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.”
Gender Dysphoria Treatment
Clearly, more research is needed in order to settle the question of whether Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria is real, however we know that gender dysphoria exists. Early diagnosis, gender-affirming approaches by parents, and individual and family counseling can help the transgender person and their loved ones deal with the emotional challenges of gender transition.
Many transgender people take action to be more in alignment with who they feel they are. They might change their name to one more suited to the gender they express or dress as that gender. Other options include taking puberty blockers, hormones to develop physical traits for the gender they identify with, or sex-reassignment surgery.
We know that people with gender dysphoria have higher rates of mental health conditions like depersonalization disorder, anxiety, depression and mood disorders, and increased substance abuse. They also experience higher suicide rates, therefore it is important for them to seek mental health treatment. The goal of treatment is not to change the person’s feelings about their gender, rather it is to give them a way to deal with the emotional issues that come with gender dysphoria.
Get Answers about Gender Dysphoria and ROGD
If you or a loved one are distressed, anxious, or depressed about your gender identity, we can help. Contact the Children’s Center for Psychiatry, Psychology and Related Services in Delray Beach, Florida for more information or call us today at (561) 223-6568.