Gender dysphoria was previously referred to as “gender identity disorder.” In 2012, the term was changed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Replacing a term that included the word “disorder” was an important step toward removing stigma against transgender people based on false stereotypes about gender identity and expression. Feeling that your gender does not match your biology is not a mental illness, and most teens seeking gender reassignment surgery have healthy psychological functioning. However, teen gender dysphoria can cause extreme distress, which in turn may lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, body dysphoria (preoccupation with a perceived flaw in one’s appearance), and an increased risk of suicide. This is due to external factors that transgender children and teens are subjected to, including bullying by peers, parental rejection, abuse, trauma, and harassment.
Gender dysphoria describes the conflict between the gender an individual identifies with and the gender they were assigned at birth. Assigned gender refers to a person’s initial designation as male or female, based on the infant’s genitalia and other visible physical characteristics. Gender dysphoria has also been called by another outdated term, “transsexualism.” Today, transgender is the word used to describe someone who identifies with the opposite gender than the one they were assigned at birth. The cause of gender dysphoria is unknown, but some scientists believe that hormonal influences in utero may be involved. Recent studies by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimate that .7 percent of American teens (ages 13 to 17) and young adults (ages 18 to 24) are transgender.
In order for a child or teen to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, they must exhibit what experts describe as “strong and persistent” feelings of identification with the opposite gender. Children are diagnosed with gender dysphoria after exhibiting ongoing insistence (for at least six months) that they are the other gender and taking on the roles, dress, hairstyles, toys, and preferences typically associated with that gender. Children with gender dysphoria reject the primary and/or secondary sex characteristics of their assigned gender, and have a strong desire for the primary and/or secondary sex characteristics of the gender they identify with.
For children, adolescents, and adults with gender dysphoria, research shows that the most effective route toward greater well-being and happiness is to reduce the discrepancy between the individual’s physical body and their gender identity. This is accomplished through self-expression (clothing, hairstyle, etc.) that matches the person’s gender identity, hormone therapy, and gender-affirming surgery. Individual therapy, family therapy (for transgender children), and/or couples counseling (for transgender adults) can help create greater comfort and communication during and after these transitions.