Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Glenn Stanton, director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family and a research fellow at the Institute of Marriage and Family in Ottawa, Ontario, and author and blogger Donna Carol Voss. Voss wrote the questions; Stanton wrote the replies; we added minor edits for clarity.
Question: In a Wall Street Journal editorial, Dr. Paul McHugh stated that “close to 80% of [transgender] children would abandon their confusion and grow naturally into adult life if untreated.” He also stated, “Some 25% did have persisting feelings; what differentiates those individuals remains to be discerned.” If McHugh does not automatically conclude that the remaining 25 percent are mentally ill, what other possible causes could there be?
Answer: McHugh’s conclusion corresponds with a strong body of research, two exampleshere and here. These studies show that from 2 to 27 percent of children with gender dysphoria (feeling their gender does not match their biology) retain that perspective by the time they reach puberty (meaning 73 to 98 percent of these children revert to a desire to match their birth sex). This is the primary reason the major clinicians who work with such children in the Americas and Europe do not recommend that parents facilitate their children’s desire to transition to the other gender before puberty. It would require a troubling and traumatic “second transition” back to their natural gender when they do desist.
As for causes of persistence in gender dysphoria, the answer is simply that no one really knows for sure. There are theories behind what contributes to gender dysphoria in children, but any consensus on the matter simply doesn’t exist nor appears to be on the horizon. The leading theories are as follows.
- Some scholars have put forth that this dysphoria is due to one having a body that is one gender and a brain that is another, the “girl trapped in a boy’s body” conviction.
- It can be due to family and parental dynamics (“family noise,” as some refer to it) rather than something present within the child.
- Others contend it is a psychosexual disorder, or that these children have just not been directed or encouraged in the general behavior that is typical for their gender.
- Others hold that this is just “how some kids are” and that we should all be fine with it.
- Others that it is just a phase some pre-adolescent children go through.
- Or it is a curious mix of many of these factors read more