Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

Gender Identity & Dysphoria in Teens

gender issues in teens

Gender dysphoria in teens has become a hotly charged topic in recent years, with no apparent sign of simmering in urgency anytime soon.  In fact, Republican legislators have begun to criminalize medical health professionals for administering certain types of gender dysphoria treatment to minors across the nation.  In response, the state of California has become a mecca for youths and their parents seeking compassion, understanding, and therapy for gender identity and dysphoria in teens. At Muir Wood Teen, we are committed to answering questions about gender identity in teens and providing vital support needed to counteract gender confusion in adolescence.  

What is Gender Dysphoria for Teens?

Dysphoria is a term to describe an individual who is experiencing general anxiety, dissatisfaction, or uneasiness about life or themselves.  Therefore, gender dysphoria in teens points to an overall discomfort or displeasure with the identification of their gender.  Put another way, gender dysphoria is a phrase used to define a condition in which a teen becomes overly concerned, distressed, or anxious because they may identify with a gender that is different from their sex at birth (also known as “assigned gender”). In some instances, this gender-related stress can lead to a teenage gender identity crisis, along with other mental health hazards such as depression or anxiety disorders.  So, while gender dysphoria is not a mental illness, it does need to be addressed in order to avoid negative manifestations or imbalances in a teen’s mental health.

non binary youth

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Statistics of Teen Gender Dysphoria

A substantial body of statistics on gender dysphoria in adolescence is still in development because this area of teen mental health is still relatively inchoate.  Additionally, statistics may not be as fully formed as hoped because teens are commonly hesitant to talk about gender confusion during puberty or discuss their feelings about their gender association in general.  

However, there are some sobering statistics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that clearly link gender dysphoria in teens with other mental health issues.  For instance, over 70% of individuals with gender dysphoria are highly likely to struggle with one or more mental health challenges.  

Furthermore, more than half of teens who are troubled with gender identity issues are more at risk of suicide if they do not have protection, nurturing, and empathy from a supporting family or supportive social network. Teens with gender identity concerns are also 50% more likely to engage in self-harming behaviors such as cutting, risky behavior, and unhealthy drug or alcohol use. 

While 0.3% of adults in the US identify as transgender, studies have shown that gender dysphoria commonly begins in early childhood.  However, distinctive signs and emotional conflict over gender identity typically manifest during the teenage years.  

Signs of Adolescent Gender Dysphoria

Pinpointing gender identity confusion in adolescence isn’t always easy. As mentioned, teens are often unwilling or resistant to talk about the feelings they are going through concerning gender identification.  Furthermore, hormones in teenage development can lead to an abyss of confusing emotions, making cogent discussions about feelings difficult for teens to express to parents.  

Due to the inherent challenges in identifying gender dysphoria in teens, parents, and family members should observe their teens for specific behavior that is common with gender-related issues.  However, please remember that every teen is different and these signs of adolescent gender dysphoria should be taken as a helpful guide, not a diagnosis. Some clues and signs of teenage gender dysphoria may include:

  • Feelings of disgust or self-loathing, often coupled with a strong disdain for their genitalia.
  • The emphatic insistence that they are a different gender than the one assigned to them at birth.
  • Constant dissatisfaction and anxiety about their gender assignment.
  • Refusal to participate in traditional roles associated with assigned gender.
  • Altering themselves (speech, activities, dress, hair, makeup, name change, etc.) in ways that align with the gender they identify with.
  • A deep desire to eradicate signs of their assigned gender from their bodies.
  • Unwillingness to engage in activities (showering, locker rooms, changing clothes) that might expose or reveal their assigned gender (breasts, genitalia).
  • The insistence that others address them as the gender they associate with.

There can be co-occurring mental health symptoms that are commonly linked with gender identity in adolescence.  For instance, a teen might become more isolated and withdrawn, decline from participating in activities they used to enjoy or begin showing signs of alcohol or substance abuse. Depression, mood swings, feelings of low self-worth, and self-harming behaviors may also accompany gender dysphoria in teens.

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How To Help A Teenager With Gender Identity

Ideally, having an open, honest discussion with your teen about gender identity is the first step in the right direction.  However, as you may imagine, this might be easier said than done.  Because gender identity is such a potentially charged subject, it can often be difficult to open up a dialogue.  This is why it is crucial for parents to suspend judgments and personal beliefs about gender issues when approaching a healthy conversation with teens.  

Assure your teen that you are there to help and support – not to judge.  It’s also important for both you and your teen to know that gender dysphoria is not something that needs to be “fixed.”  Instead, it is a complex and often confusing condition that should be addressed in order for your teen to get the support and resources needed to cope with uncomfortable, stressful situations.

When To Get Help For Your Teen

In addition to talking with your teen, you may also seek help from your pediatrician or family doctor. Your teen should also visit with a psychiatrist, counselor, therapist, or psychologist.  At Muir Wood Teen, our mental health professionals are qualified to conduct a teenage mental health evaluation that will reveal information about your teen’s emotional status.  Additionally, with a gender dysphoria test, teenager identity issues can be more accurately diagnosed, which can guide the narrative for potential emotional support your child needs to adjust to the often confusing conditions gender dysphoria may pose.

Treatment Plan For Teenagers With Gender Dysphoria

It’s critical to realize that gender dysphoria treatment is not about “correcting” or changing your teen.  Instead, a thoughtful treatment plan is about uncovering your teen’s feelings about gender identity and giving them the tools and support in order to live a full, healthy, satisfying life well beyond their adolescence.  

One of the most effective methods of treatment is psychotherapy, which is also known as “talk therapy.”  This is when your teen can speak to a qualified psychotherapist in a safe, encouraging environment.  Talk therapy gives teens with gender dysphoria a chance to express their feelings and share their conflicting thoughts without apprehension or shame.  

Psychotherapy is also the first step in determining what kind of action (if any) might be taken in the future.  One-on-one talk therapy in addition to group therapy and family talk therapy promotes narratives that can help discern if more intense treatments might be in order such as puberty suppression, hormone replacement therapy, or gender reassignment surgery.  In essence, group and individual psychotherapy sessions can shed light on your teen’s situation and assess their needs in order to uncover the best solutions for them going forward. 

It bears mentioning that in most cases, teens with gender identity confusion require understanding, recognition, and support more than anything else.  In a compassionate, inclusive environment, many teens feel a great sense of acceptance and relief.  When this environment is established, many teens experience a significant reduction in anxiety and depression.  Furthermore, in many instances, teens who are wholly supported learn to accept themselves and often do not feel the need to undergo more intense therapies such as surgery or hormone treatments.   

How Muir Wood Can Help

Muir Wood is one of the most specialized treatment providers of its kind. We focus on helping teens establish emotional stability so they can flourish in their lives now and well into adulthood.  Our highly qualified and compassionate team members are fully licensed and recognized nationwide for the superior mental health services we provide to teens in need.  

When it comes to gender dysphoria in teens, Muir Wood provides a life-affirming, supportive environment that encourages all teens to be themselves. We also encourage our teens to explore who they are and recognize that they deserve to live full, healthy, happy lives.  Our methods are proven successful – but more importantly – we care, and that care for your teen shines through every moment we spend with your child. 

Gender Dysphoria Treatment for Teens at Muir Wood

When you and your teen choose to partner with Muir Wood, we begin by conducting a comprehensive assessment with a goal to understand what your teen is going through.  Our in-depth assessments also inform you, your teen, and our team as to what types of therapies would complement your teen and what solutions will be most effective in achieving their best self.  We provide a range of therapies and activities, including psychotherapy, experiential therapy, and adventure therapies.  

We know gender dysphoria in teens can be incredibly challenging for both your teen and your family.  That is why we are also here for you, by providing family therapy so that you and your family can be a part of something both healing and beautiful – the unfolding confidence and well-being in your child.

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Gender Dysphoria in Teens FAQs

Why Do People Develop Gender Dysphoria?

Regrettably, the precise cause of gender dysphoria is not clear.  With continued research and studies, we may find more answers.  In the meantime, psychological experts agree that gender dysphoria is not necessarily linked to sexual orientation.  Experts also agree that gender dysphoria typically develops at a young age, before entering adolescence.  It is not until a child begins to further develop in their teens that gender identity confusion begins to manifest. In some cases, identity issues may manifest into adulthood if children do not receive the support and necessary therapy required to identify their internal conflicts.

Can Gender Confusion Be A Phase?

According to studies conducted by the Mayo Clinic, there are some cases in which gender confusion could be a phase.  It’s important to remember that children continue to develop physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally well into their late teen years, with the ages of 12 – 16 being the years most hormonally active.  During a child’s development, it’s understandable that there can be many changes – including confusion about gender identity – which the teen could potentially grow out of as they become older.  What is critical to remember is that teens need to have a supportive environment so they feel safe to go through changes in a nurturing, judge-free environment.

At What Age Does Gender Dysphoria Develop?

Gender dysphoria can develop at any age.  However, as mentioned, it commonly develops at a young age – around the age of 6 or 7.  As a child develops, more clear manifestations of associating with a gender that is different from their assigned gender at birth may become more prevalent.

Can Gender Dysphoria Go Away After Puberty?

In some teens, puberty can become a trigger for intense gender identity confusion.  This makes sense, as the surge of hormones is at its peak during puberty.  However, there is evidence that gender dysphoria can abate after puberty.  It’s essential to understand that each child is different.  Some teens show early signs of identifying with a different gender than the one they were assigned. Some teens may continue to maintain the conviction that they are the gender identity they choose for themselves long after puberty.  Each case is different, which is why therapy is the best path toward assessing your teen’s situation and finding individualized solutions.

At What Age Does Gender Dysphoria Go Away?

If gender dysphoria occurs as a temporary manifestation of a child’s development, experts say that the age of 10 – 13 is the average time frame when this condition should abate.  However, in some cases, gender dysphoria can persist into adulthood.  This is why therapy is crucial in helping teens cope and avoid mental health complications in the future.

Can Gender Dysphoria Be Caused By Trauma?

While there is no conclusive proof that trauma can cause gender dysphoria, it cannot be ruled out.  If a child experiences sexual abuse or trauma, it may trigger gender dysphoria.  Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder can inflict many different mental health challenges, including conflicts regarding identity.  However, more studies need to be conducted in order to make a conclusive link between trauma and gender dysphoria.

What Happens If You Don’t Treat Gender Dysphoria?

While gender dysphoria is not a mental illness, it can manifest into mental conditions that can negatively impact your teen’s life.  When not addressed, gender dysphoria can develop into intense depression, anxiety disorders, and mental struggles that can stunt the well-being of your child.  Furthermore, untreated gender dysphoria has been known to lead to other mental maladies such as substance or alcohol addiction, self-harming, or even suicidal tendencies.