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What is gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria is a mental health disorder in which children experience intense emotional distress because they feel that they were born as the wrong gender. It’s important to note that being transgender (also called trans) or gender-nonconforming is not a mental health disorder. Gender dysphoria is only diagnosed when a child is very upset about the difference between the gender assigned to them at birth and the gender they feel themselves to be.  

For instance, a child who was born with a penis may feel that they are actually a girl, or vice versa. This can cause problems at home, at school and with friends. They might experience anxiety, depression or thoughts of suicide. In that case, gender dysphoria could be diagnosed so that the child could get treatment for emotional distress related to their gender identity. Their gender identity itself would not be considered a mental health disorder. 

What are the symptoms of gender dysphoria?

Kids with gender dysphoria feel a big difference between the gender they were assigned at birth and the gender they feel themselves to be. They might say they feel trapped in the wrong body or ask to be treated as a different gender. Children and teenagers with these experiences often identify as transgender, but not all transgender children experience gender dysphoria. 

The key sign of gender dysphoria is that the child feels extreme emotional distress because of their gender identity. They may get anxious, depressed or suicidal because of the difference between the gender they were assigned at birth and the gender they feel themselves to be. This distress often causes problems at school, at home or with friends. 

How is gender dysphoria diagnosed?

Gender dysphoria is diagnosed only if a child feels so upset about their gender that it causes problems at school, at home or with friends. This distress must last for at least six months. 

Often, the distress involved in gender dysphoria comes at least partly from the experience of living in an unsupportive environment. Trans or gender-nonconforming kids are often bullied, rejected or discriminated against. However, those whose families and communities support their gender identity may not experience as much distress. Some don’t develop gender dysphoria at all.

How is gender dysphoria treated?

Treatment for gender dysphoria focuses on helping kids deal with their challenging feelings about their gender identity. It does not try to change their gender identity or convince them that they should be the gender they were assigned at birth. 

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is commonly used to treat gender dysphoria. DBT helps the child understand that their emotions are normal and helps them learn skills for dealing with them and feeling better about themselves.  

Kids who experience anxiety or depression may also be treated with therapy or medication for those specific disorders. 

Additionally, treatment for gender dysphoria helps kids and their families figure out how the child can express their gender in a healthy way that makes them feel good. Sometimes, this can involve hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery, which can make the child’s body match their internal gender identity. A therapist can help families decide whether these options make sense for the child’s specific situation. 

Risk for other disorders

Kids with gender dysphoria often experience depression and/or anxiety and are at a higher risk of harming themselves or attempting suicide. If you think your child or teenager is suicidal, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 911 if there is an emergency. Don’t wait — the risk of suicide in children and teenagers is very real.

This guide was last reviewed or updated on December 12, 2023.