Children who don’t conform to traditional gender roles – in their activities, interests and styles of play – face a greater risk of abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder later in life, new research suggests.
As many as 1 in 10 children may be at increased risk, due to “gender nonconformity,” according to a new study led by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health.
The study, reported in the journal Pediatrics, found children in the U.S. whose “activity choices, interests and pretend play before age 11 fall outside those typically expressed by their biological sex” face increased risk of being physically, psychologically and sexually abused, and of suffering PTSD by early adulthood.
"The abuse we examined was mostly perpetrated by parents or other adults in the home," said lead author Andrea Roberts, a research associate in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at HSPH.
PTSD has been linked to risky behavior such as engaging in unprotected sex, and also to physical symptoms such as cardiovascular problems and chronic pain.
The study was based on a survey of nearly 9,000 young adults (average age 23) who were asked to recall their childhood experiences, including favorite toys and games, roles they took while playing, media characters they imitated or admired, and feelings of femininity and masculinity. They also were asked about physical, sexual, or emotional abuse they experienced and were screened for PTSD.
Those most likely to display “gender nonconformity” reported a higher prevalence of sexual and physical abuse before age 11 and psychological abuse between ages 11 and 17, compared with their more conformist peers. Rates of PTSD were almost twice as high among nonconforming children.
The researchers also found that most children who were gender nonconforming were heterosexual in adulthood (85 percent).