Children who do not conform to their gender-expected behaviors and interests are at a higher risk of being abused and facing subsequent traumas, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health and Children’s Hospital Boston reported in the journal Pediatrics. Childhood gender nonconformity refers to a phenomenon in which children, before puberty, do not conform to psychological or sociological patterns expected of their gender, or their identification with the opposite gender. Examples include a preference for playmates of the opposite sex, choosing not to take part in activities thought suitable for their gender, and a propensity to cross-dress.

The authors explained that previous studies had shown that childhood gender nonconformity was associated with poorer relationships between the child and parents. However, no studies had looked at whether nonconformity was linked to the risk of abuse or PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) during childhood.

Andrea L. Roberts, PhD., and team set out to determine whether there might be a link between gender nonconformity and childhood sexual, psychological and physical abuse before the age of 11 years. They also examined whether this may be associated with a higher lifetime risk of PTSD.

They gathered data from a self-report questionnaire from the Growing Up Today Study, 2007 wave. The study involved 9,864 respondents, whose average age was 22.7 years. They also tried to determine whether higher childhood abuse exposure might result in a higher rate of PTSD among nonconforming children. They also tried to find out whether childhood gender nonconformity’s link to PTSD risk existed regardless of sexual orientation.

The authors found that approximately one in every ten children displays gender nonconformity before reaching 11 years of age. By early adulthood, these children are significantly more likely to have experienced sexual, psychological and physical abuse, as well as PTSD by early adulthood.

The most likely abuser was found to be either a parent or some older adult who lived in the household.

Roberts said:

“(before 11 years of age, children frequenly) exhibit a wide variety of behaviors that mean nothing about their future sexual preferences.”

Roberts added that even children whose nonconformity was mild, faced harmful discrimination and intolerance, with effects that sometimes persisted for the rest of their lives.

In an Abstract in the journal, the researchers concluded:

“We identify gender nonconformity as an indicator of children at increased risk of abuse and probable PTSD. Pediatricians and school health providers should consider abuse screening for this vulnerable population.

Further research to understand how gender nonconformity might increase risk of abuse and to develop family interventions to reduce abuse risk is needed.”

Written by Christian Nordqvist