Transgender children are children whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from those associated with the gender they were assigned at birth.
The study, scheduled for publishing in Psychological Science, is one of the first to have used implicit measures as well as conscious self-reporting in order to explore the gender identity of transgender children.
"Seeing how little scientific information there was, basically nothing for parents, was hard to watch," says lead author Kristina Olson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington.
There has been a degree of skepticism surrounding the idea that young children can be truly transgender, with some people considering the gender identity of transgender children to be the result of confusion or pretense.
Some experts have recommended that "gender-variant" children should become more comfortable with the sex they are assigned at birth.
Olson describes how much uncertainty parents often have when bringing up transgender children:
"Doctors were saying, 'We just don't know,' so the parents have to make these really big decisions: Should I let my kid go to school as a girl, or should I make my kid go to school as a boy? Should my child be in therapy to try to change what she says she is, or should she be supported?"
Skepticism is gradually being eroded, however, with more and more parents, doctors and mental health professionals supporting the notion that transgender children should be able to live as their identified gender.
Gender identity was assessed both explicitly and implicitly
The authors of the study examined 32 transgender children aged 5-12 who were living as their identified gender and were yet to reach puberty. These children all came from supportive families and were able to live as their identified gender in all aspects of their lives.
Cisgender (non-transgender) children were also recruited and age-matched with the transgender children in order to provide a point of comparison for analysis.
The researchers assessed the children's gender identities using both implicit and explicit measures. The children were asked directly about aspects of their gender identity while the strength of their automatic gender associations was analyzed.
Using the Implicit Association Test (IAT), the researchers looked at how quickly the children associated the terms "male" and "female" with descriptors linked to concepts of selfhood. The IAT is founded on the idea that people respond quickest to pairings that have the strongest connections in their minds.
The results of an IAT measuring gender identity showed that the transgender children had a strong implicit identification with their expressed gender in the same manner as the age-matched cisgender children.
An IAT measuring gender preferences also showed the same pattern; the results for transgender girls were the same as those for cisgender girls, and the results for transgender boys were the same as those for cisgender boys.
The explicit measuring of gender identity supported these findings, with transgender children reporting the same preferences for friends, toys and foods as their cisgender counterparts.
Transgender children 'are not confused, delayed, showing gender-atypical responding'
"While future studies are always needed, our results support the notion that transgender children are not confused, delayed, showing gender-atypical responding, pretending, or oppositional - they instead show responses entirely typical and expected for children with their gender identity," write the authors.
Not all transgender children have supportive families, however, and many have to live with an expressed gender that is different to their gender identity. The results of the present study may not be applicable to these children, although it may be difficult to assess this demographic group as easily.
Olson now aims to recruit up to 100 more transgender children and follow them into adulthood in order to assess how the support they receive throughout their childhood influences their development. Such research would represent the first ever nationwide longitudinal study of transgender children in the US.
"We have absolutely no idea what their lives will look like because there are very few transgender adults today who lived as young kids expressing their gender identity," she states. "That's all the more reason why this particular generation is important to study. They're the pioneers."
Earlier this month, Medical News Today reported on a study that found LGBT health research is under-funded, with only 0.5% of studies funded by the National Institutes of Health concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health issues.