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Hosted by Editor in Chief Lorenzo Norris, MD, Psychcast features mental health care professionals discussing the issues that most affect psychiatry.

Nov 20, 2019

Jack Drescher, MD, returns to the MDedge Psychcast, this time to discuss ethical issues raised by the treatment of gender-variant prepubescent children with MDedge Psychiatry editor in chief Lorenzo Norris, MD. The two spoke at the 2019 Group for Advancement in Psychiatry (GAP) meeting in White Plains, N.Y.

Dr. Drescher is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, past president of GAP, and a past president of the APA’s New York County Psychiatric Society. He has a private practice in New York.

And later, in the “Dr. RK” segment, Renee Kohanski, MD, says artificial intelligence is much more powerful than we imagined.

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Three approaches used to address gender-variant children

Despite the acceptance of gender dysphoria as a diagnosis with standardized treatments, the treatment of gender-variant prepubescent children remains a controversial area. There are several treatment approaches regarding how and when a child should have a social transition to their desired gender. 

  • The oldest treatment approach is based on research that shows that most children will grow out of their gender dysphoria when the therapies applied help the children get used to living in the body of their assigned gender. Essentially, this approach discourages public or private social transition. 
  • The Dutch Protocol is based on research that shows the difficulty in predicting which children will continue to have gender dysphoria and which will not. Some children will have persistent gender dysphoria and become transgender; some may become homosexual; and others may identify with their own biological sex. The Dutch approach encourages children to have cross-gender interests and to privately identify with their desired gender, but there is not a public social transition.
    • Families and clinicians use watchful waiting to see whether the gender dysphoria persists. It’s based on the idea that one cannot predict the future and so parents accept the child wherever they are. 
  • The final approach focuses on social transition without a medical or surgical treatment. Therefore, if the child’s gender dysphoria desists, they can “detransition,” since there was no medical intervention.
    • The gender-affirmative approach, mostly found in the United States, presupposes that it is possible to identify which children will persist in their transgender presentations and encourages a public, social transition to living as their identified gender. In case the child “makes a mistake,” they can transition back to their biological sex.
    • A social transition occurs when a child, with the help of clinicians, explains to the family that they believe the gender dysphoria is going to last and that the child should be allowed to present publicly as their desired gender. This includes communicating with the school, family, and friends to help the child to be treated respectfully in the gender they desire. 

Treatments for gender-variant children

  • Puberty suppression is a medical treatment used by physicians in all three approaches. These medications block sex hormone action and are used to delay puberty and prevent the development of undesired secondary sex characteristics of the biologic sex. Adolescents frequently experience anxiety, depression, even suicidal ideation during this period because they feel pressured to choose their gender and avoid developing the secondary sexual characteristics of their biological sex. 
  • Social changes are outpacing the science. More frequently, children show up at gender clinics already socially transitioned by their parents; these children outnumber the subjects in the persist and desist literature. Regardless of the approach used, parents and clinicians should try to act on the exigent circumstances to relieve the distress of the child. 
  • Patients who are transitioning should be referred to a specialist, because this is a sensitive topic and treatment requires expertise. 


Shumer DE et al. Advances in the care of transgender children and adolescents. Adv Pediatr. 2016 Aug;63(1):79-102.

Reed GM et al. Disorders related to sexuality and gender identity in the ICD-11: Revising the ICD-10 classification based on current scientific evidence, best clinical practices, and human rights considerations. World Psychiatry. 2016 Oct;15(3):205-21.

Zraick K. Texas father says 7-year-old isn’t transgender, igniting a political outcry. New York Times. 2019 Oct 28.

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