The Big Five Personality Traits and Teen-onset Gender Dysphoria
The opinions expressed in this article are my own, based on my clinical observations, and do not represent the intended uses of the Big Five trait taxonomy or the perspectives of it’s developers.
What are personality theories?
Personality trait research in psychology began in the late 1800's. Personality traits might include factors like extroversion, curiosity, or negative emotionality. While personality trait theories are poor at predicting specific or situational instances of behavior, they can reliably predict patterns of behavior across time for any given individual. I took interest in these theories in my undergraduate studies, but recently have been thinking more about how they might help us understand the phenomenon of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, a descriptive term (and not a DSM diagnostic category) first used by Lisa Littman.
The Big Five
The Big Five is a personality trait taxonomy developed by Lewis Goldberg in the 1980's, as an extension of J.M. Digma’s five factor model of personality. Goldberg was challenging social psychology theories that assert attitudes and behaviors are not stable across a lifetime, and are completely situation-specific. He believed that broad dimensions of personality were, in fact, stable and that his model could predict behavior patterns over a longer time-span. His "Big Five" is based on linguistic descriptors and their statistical correlation to behaviors and other traits. For example, someone described as “extroverted” is more likely to also be described at outgoing, social, friendly, etc. The five factors measured are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (acronym, OCEAN). This model has drawn broad support, especially among personality researchers, and today the Big Five is a tool that is widely accepted and used in the field of personality psychology.
The Big Five: high and low scores
In this section I’m going to further explain by listing characteristics of people who score high and low in each of the five dimensions.
Openness to experience:
High: enjoys complex ideas, experiences feelings strongly, has a vivid imagination, appreciation for aesthetics/art. On the very high end, this can also lead to a slightly erratic and short-lived pursuit of new interests, without the ability to complete projects or stick with an activity long-term.
Low: cautious, likes to analyze using information and data before making big decisions. On the very low end, a person may refuse to try new things, may struggle with change, or become rigid.
High: meticulous rule-follower, hard working, avoids mistakes, highly productive and efficient. On the very high end, can tend towards obsessive/compulsive behaviors, perfectionism, and self-deprecation or guilt when the person falls short of their high performance standards.
Low: flexibility, spontaneity, a go-with-the-flow attitude. On the very low end, a person may be impulsive, disorganized, careless, or unreliable.
High: energetic, positive, assertive, sociable, talkative, loves excitement, and makes friends easily. On the very high end, someone may lean towards attention seeking or domineering behavior.
Low: reserved, reflective, enjoys spending time alone or in one-on-one interactions. On the very low end, a person may come off as aloof, distant, or anti-social (not in the psychiatric sense of the word).
High: trusting, sympathetic, cooperative, and helpful towards others. On the very high end, this can lead to naivety or submissiveness, and the person can become the target of bullying or abuse. It may also be hard for people who score very high to distinguish their own needs/desires from others’ expectations of them.
Low: competitive, argumentative, more concerned with one’s own needs than the needs of others. On the very low end, this pay present as a combative provocateur, or sociopathic characteristics.
Neuroticism: keep in mind, this is not the Freudian sense of the word, but rather, the tendency to experience negative emotions
High: easily experiences sadness, anxiety, anger, vulnerability. On the very high end, one may be seen as insecure or unstable. Can be emotionally volatile and others may feel they're “walking on eggshells” around him/her.
Low: Calm, stable personality. On the very low end, this can be seen as detached, stoic, uncaring, or unprincipled.
There is, of course, overlap in the way the five factors present in men and women, but there are also significant differences. A study of 55 nations shows that in 49 of these, women tended to score much higher than men in neuroticism, or the experiencing of negative emotions. Women also scored consistently higher than men (though not in as differentiated a pattern as neuroticism) in extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Interestingly, in countries that are highly egalitarian and individualistic, differences in men’s and women’s personality traits were more pronounced than in less egalitarian countries. This suggests that sex-based personality trait differences can’t be accounted for by socialization or culture alone and likely have a biological basis.
What does this correlation tell us about the fact that girls far outnumber boys in current phenomenon of gender questioning during adolescence, whereas historically, transsexuals were disproportionately biological males? More on this later.
Studies show that high conscientiousness and low neuroticism can account for 14% of the variance of undergraduate GPAs. Additionally, a gifted program in Israel found that their students scored higher in openness and lower in neuroticism than the students in the regular academic program.
The Big Five model can significantly predict all 10 personality disorder symptoms and outperform the MMPI for borderline, avoidant, and dependent symptoms. The biggest predictor of these symptoms are high neuroticism and low agreeableness scores.
When considering the population of teens presenting with "ROGD," the data shows that they have a higher rate of psychiatric problems than the general population. However, keep in mind, that these problems are usually mood disorders (not personality disorders), mostly commonly affective and anxiety-related issues. A high correlation of kids on the autism spectrum is not captured in the discussion of mood disorders, though there is likely overlap since autistic girls are also prone to mood issues in adolescence.
Adolescence and personality predictability/stability
We all know that children change rapidly approaching and during adolescence. Parents sometimes feel like they are living with a stranger: their loving sweet child morphs into a moody and defiant one, or sometimes an insecure hermit. The changes in personality that you recognize, both instinctively and as a parent, are also observable with reference to the Big Five. During this time, there is a temporary (yes!) dip in agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. So these radical shifts from exuberant childhood to isolated hibernation don’t necessarily indicate a permanent turn in your child’s personality. None the less, looking at the Big Five can help us identify what traits your teen may need to develop (or confront). Below I’ll discuss some of these implications, how they may relate to "ROGD," and what you can do to help your teen.
Who I am referring to in this analysis
My clinical work serves teens and young adults who first began questioning their gender in adolescence. This is the population I'm thinking of as I discuss the Big Five in this post. I have less clinical experience with trans-identified and transsexual people who experienced a life-long struggle with their biological sex. That population, more reminiscent of the classic cases of transsexualism that dominated transgender identity before the early 2010s, seem to exhibit a struggle with gender which emerged spontaneously and organically - in the absence of exposure to the concept of "gender identity" in childhood or adolescence.
How personality traits relate to dysphoria & what parents can do
Looking at the Big Five gives us a broad framework and helps us avoid micro-analyzing the specifics of a teen’s behavior, words, posturing, etc. When we get stuck in minutia, we can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak. As you consider the following discussion, also remember that you have your own Big Five and your personality will inevitably create some blind spots and ramifications in your parenting style. Try to think consciously about the interplay between your personality and your teen's and focus on what type of interaction you’d like to aim for in the future.
Openness to new experiences
High: Is you kid always “into something new”? Maybe she is changing her aesthetics all the time, jumping in and out of new, obscure interests, or embracing lots of disparate ideas (even radical ones) with enthusiasm? These teens may be approaching gender identity with an excitement for the “next phase” of their life, and expecting you to come along for the ride, no questions asked. Maybe your teen is really shocked and confused when you don’t show the same glittering enthusiasm about her gender-questioning.
Parenting Tip: The good news is that your teen is open to ideas, and may even independently question her new beliefs after some time. When you talk with her, your tone really matters: if you come off as too closed minded, you can alienate your rhapsodic child. Partner with her and be curious too. Stay interested in how she’s come to this conclusion, but also share some alternative ideas. Talk about the philosophical aspects of gender, keep the focus on ideas, and stay open to a range of aesthetic and style choices for both sexes.
Low: This teen might have been brooding privately over gender issues for a long time. Maybe you found out by seeing a journal entry or text message to one of her few close friends. Your teen doesn’t want anyone else to know and would be mortified if they found out you told Dad (or Mom or sibling). These kids have likely tried to avoid “being trans,” but may have dishearteningly come to believe it’s their only shot at being truly happy. They begrudgingly start playing the role of a trans teen by following recommended steps such as binding, changing their hair, and updating their wardrobe. They are likely unable to explain why they feel this way. Conversations could include a lot of shrugging and “I don’t know.”
Parenting Tip: Here you may be able to “push the pause button” (to borrow a term from blocker-proponents) and give your child some distance from this stressful and daunting gender issue. You can encourage your teen to “just be a kid” and let them know that you will not support a social transition. You will also want to normalize any vague body discomfort that has emerged in puberty as a completely normal (albeit unpleasant) part of growing up. They should be informed, lovingly but directly, that hating your body at puberty does not necessarily mean you must question your gender. Instill hope that this will likely pass as she/he gets older and gains more confidence.
High: If your teen is so hard on herself that she often feels anxious and not-good-enough, she is likely an extreme rule follower, and a procedural thinker. Maybe there’s something comforting to her in finally having a step-by-step solution to the ever present anxiety and self-flagellation she experiences. There are many easy-to-follow, recipe-like pathways prescribed by the modern trans-teen movement. She can look at some checklists. If she fit enough boxes, then she’s trans, and the supposed path towards salvation is a clear sequential process of social, legal, and medical transition.
Maybe your son has tried hard to fit in with other same-sex peers in the past, copying others, trying to follow the social teen-codes, but feels that he always falls short of the expectations and norms. If he can’t be a perfect guy, then maybe he can become the perfect girl (or vice versa).
Parenting Tip: Be very careful not to scold or impose the burden of extra guilt on your teen. Your child already beats herself up as it is, and an overly controlling or critical parenting style can exacerbate the teen’s anxiety. Be deliberate in your relationship and conversations. Make sure that you talk about things other than academics and college applications. If your teen gets a less-than-ideal grade, be mindful of your response and be sure your love and support is not conditionally based on achievement or scores.
Try to build a connection around some activities or hobbies that are not based on evaluation or competition, such as taking nature hikes or cooking together (let her mess up the dish if need be, eat it anyways, tell her it’s delicious, and thank her for such fun time together).
In conversations about her identity exploration, be careful not to characterize your teen as being “brainwashed”, “illogical”, etc. You’ll actually want to reiterate over and over again, that there’s nothing wrong with her, and all the feelings she’s having are things you can work through over time. Normalize her confusing and overwhelming feelings - even the ones directly about gender. For example, many conscientious teens have internalized rules about how to be a girl or boy. Assure her that questioning these rules is normal and healthy, and doesn't have to lead to adopting a new gender identity.
Low: This can look like ADHD symptoms, struggles with organization and academics, or even hygiene. Girls like this often feel very alien from the pristine feminine or sexy playful personas of teenage female role models. Also, struggles with school structure can translate to conflicts with teachers, embarrassment about their performance failings, and a feeling of inadequacy (and not being the "right kind" of girl).
Parenting Tip: Kids low in this category tend to be extremely sensitive to criticism. Rather than pointing out what she’s not doing, help support her patiently and lovingly with structured interventions. Get together and work on organization tools, get her an executive functioning coach, or try other behavioral therapies to help her achieve success. She needs to be able to set and meet small incremental goals, which will help her chart progress and be proud of her achievements.
Regarding gender identity, consider that she may feel it’s more acceptable to be a guy struggling with these issues than a girl struggling with them. Again, normalize that many girls do need help in this area, and they may feel (and look) different from the “typical” teenage girl.
High: Is your daughter closely knit to a gender-questioning/trans peer cluster at school? Maybe a few of her closest friends have come out as trans and now she has too. She feels closely identified with her best friends and they do everything as a group. She’s never had trouble making friends, but she can get carried away with the interests or behaviors of her "besties."
Parenting Tip: Encourage individuality and thinking for herself. Be careful not to isolate her from friends because for the extroverted kid, this could feel like a devastating betrayal by parents. Do, on the other hand, spend one-on-one time with her and discuss the importance of knowing who you are while still being closely connected to your friend group. Teach her that friendship isn’t based on being identical, but respecting one another’s unique individuality.
Low: If your child already tends to be a bit of a loner, she has likely felt very different from others for some time. Adolescence is a period in which social interaction becomes more important for all kids, despite their introverted disposition. So now she may suddenly care a lot about feeling connected and making friends. A trans identity might help explain why she’s always been so “different." Furthermore, the online community could be an easy and low-risk avenue towards more social connections. She might feel that she’s finally found “her tribe” and connecting with other kids who describe themselves as isolated loners could feel incredibly comforting.
Parenting Tip: Upon learning about the trans identity, you may be tempted to further isolate her, since affirmation is commonplace in schools and peer groups. But in my estimation, this is a slippery slope because introverted kids almost always turn to the safety and anonymity of online relationships, which can be dangerous and warp her reality. Also, social avoidance behaviors can easily spiral out of control, leading to a deeper and deeper level of isolation and social withdrawal as kids turn exclusively to their online-networks.
Teens need in-person connections that can develop into friendships. This is how they learn about trust, boundaries, cooperation, and independence. So even if your teen is reluctant, I think it’s vital that she stay engaged in real-life social activities, clubs, hobbies, etc. Sign your child up for social in-person (adult supervised) activities based on her interests. It must be something that she really likes, or at least has alluded to with interest in the past. She may resist or complain, but you need to help her break out of the dangerous cycle of social anxiety and isolation which makes her vulnerable to online predatory environments.
I won’t spend too much time on this but I want to share a disturbing pattern I’ve observed: There are many instances in which insecure, shy, vulnerable kids becoming deeply enmeshed with highly codependent, emotionally unstable teens. These relationships often start online, but they can develop in-person too. Devolving into a deeply controlling and toxic manipulation, this relationship can make the shy teen feel 100% emotionally responsible for her “friend’s” self-harm, suicidal ideation, or emotional well-being. The shy kid may get shamed or belittled by the controlling friend, and a fog of secrecy and incubation develops around this clandestine relationship. Parents may be completely unaware. Watch out for kids who are attached to their phones and “have to” text people back right away, “or they’ll get mad.” If your teen seems more anxious and depressed as they become more entrenched in a peer relationship, start paying close attention. If your kid tells you about a friend’s behavior that seems controlling, don’t immediately dismiss it as normal “teen drama.” Ask neutral, non-judgmental questions so you can assess what’s really going on. If you uncover something that seems toxic, remind your child that kids who have serious mental health issues need adult help, and no best friend or peer can be solely responsible for helping that person. Set boundaries or contact the other set of parents if necessary.
High: On the extreme end, these kids are incredibly desperate to be liked, to never hurt anyone’s feelings, and will bend over backwards to do what they think others want from them (often to their own detriment). This is one of the most common recurring traits I see in my teen clients, and it too, can slip into paralyzing social anxiety and isolation (ironically). These kids are so focused on what others think that they may not even know what they like or need for themselves.
These kids can spend many years of their childhood remaining silent about gripes with family dynamics, social roles, and femininity in order to appease their parents. Due to the invisibility of their secret objections, parents are blindsighted when their daughters tell them, “I’ve always hated dresses, I just never told you.” Parents could mistakenly read this claim as a misremembered past, but in my opinion, this could be a girl who repressed her own opinions so she wouldn’t rock the boat. Maybe parents subtly enforced certain behaviors deemed feminine and made passing comments about masculine girls at school or homophobic jokes. The daughter’s feelings can develop into jealousy of boys and the apparent freedom they have from having to “sit like a lady” or “being sweet and pretty”. Wishing to be a boy for these reasons is often cited by my clients as gender dysphoria. By the time kids “come out” and share these old memories, parents might tell them, “well why can’t you just be a tomboy,” despite having derided the “tomboy” persona in the past.
Conversely, I had one "ROGD" teen explain that she consistently heard messages in childhood about women being strong and powerful. She, on the other hand, had felt vulnerable and shy for most of her childhood, and felt she couldn’t embody the strong tomboy persona she fantasized about… until she “became a boy.”
So the underlying dynamic at play here is the inability to speak up rooted in an fear of conflict - a quintessentially too-agreeable person. The teen’s striving to finally, once and for all, speak up about who she is and wants to be. Unfortunately, she might have misread the clues about exactly what she needs, but either way, it's significant that she's striving for individuality and of finding her own voice. She displays a new sense of assertiveness that highly agreeable people lack. When she comes out as a boy, you may suddenly see an overly-confident person making demands and acting strangely out-of-character.
Parenting Tip: This is such a tricky one. You want to encourage the assertive taking-back of a voice, but avert the interpretation of trans-as-the-answer. This is not easy to do but here are some ideas:
- Point out that her identity has brought about a lot of positive changes that you see in her: the bravery and confidence needed to speak up for what she wants, and her willingness to do something risky, despite what others may say. Tell her you want her to keep developing all of those traits and you’re glad she’s found a voice.
- Engage with her about the shift you’ve observed and whether surgery and medication make sense as the “only way to be your authentic self”?
- Do not point to the femininity that she’s lost. Apologize (sincerely) if you have pushed her to play a rigid role of femininity in the past, and be encouraging of her experimentation with aesthetic. But remind her that pretending to be a boy is not the way to confidence and autonomy. Assertiveness and being able to defend yourself is the way to confidence.
- Stay curious about the positive aspects of masculinity and what they have offered your daughter - independence, assertiveness, self-preservation, etc. (or femininity for your son)
- Help her separate the confidence from the gender identity (and the vulnerability from femaleness)
- Remind her that conflict is an important part of any meaningful social relationship. It’s ok, and necessary, to disagree with people and assert yourself, even if people get mad sometimes.
- Walk the walk by responding carefully to any instance in which she shows a little defiance and combativeness. You actually want to encourage a bit of combativeness from too-agreeable teens (outside of gender-issues).
Low: I have yet to meet a teen (other than one or two kids on the spectrum) who might qualify as low in agreeableness. I would also guess that truly disagreeable people don’t really care if they fit the social norms or not, and would be less likely to analyze themselves with the tenacity and scrutiny characteristic of most "ROGD" teens.
Sometimes, kids are so deeply impacted by a previous social rejection (or other trauma) that their new persona has an I-don’t-give-a-fuck flavor that might be read, by an un-careful observer, as disagreeableness. But especially in adolescence, don’t be fooled by this tough-girl/tough-guy front. Most gender-questioning teens are highly agreeable people who might have been deeply wounded by a past conflict or trauma who learn to use a defensive posturing that protects them from future emotional pain.
Parenting Tip: If you can get tough-posturing kids to process their hurt or rejection, you’re on the right path. I work with some of these kids, and the walls of pain around their most vulnerable parts seem nearly impenetrable. It takes a lot of patience and care to engage with them and also to recognize what their “lashing out” is really about. They have a sensitivity and touchiness in their spirit. They will likely try to shut you out, or even insult you, hoping you’ll back off and just let them sulk grumpily in their protective shell. Don’t take it personally, just try to remain consistently interested and lovingly help them to open up, little by little. Accepting the pain of their story without judgement or challenge at first is necessary.
High: I believe the tendency to experience negative emotion is strongly correlated with discomfort and body incongruence (girls tend to struggle with body image far more than boys). Mood issues lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and have implications for a person’s social and identity development in adolescence. This translates to a low tolerance for distress, high self-consciousness, and issues with impulse control. These kids may struggle with panic attacks, self-harm, and depression. They may also exhibit low confidence before and after passing through adolescence. Again remember, it’s expected for negative emotionality to spike for all kids in adolescence, but truly neurotic children would have a long history of mood disregulation.
The self-report criteria for teen gender dysphoria has gotten so incredibly broad that it serves as a catch-all for unpleasant emotions and feelings of being different. When you add the body discomfort that characterizes adolescence, you have a recipe for social contagion. Those who score high in neuroticism are likely vulnerable to interpreting their emotionality and body discomfort as proof of being trans in today's LBGT teen internet climate.
Parenting Tip: The truth is that the human experience requires a full range of emotional states. Accepting that feeling bad happens can be a freeing notion. Accepting unpleasant emotions can give teens the opportunity to focus outward, towards what they’d rather be doing, instead of obsessively focusing inward and monitoring their emotional state. An adolescence based on positive experiences and growth requires teens to reconcile their painful emotions and engage in life despite them. If a teen doesn’t need to wait till his mood is just right, he can start pursuing things he is interested in right now.
A common mistake in mainstream parenting advice is to focus heavily on teens experiencing and identifying emotions, then attempting to do things to change the emotion. This can be beneficial in some cases, but in others, the feelings may be stubborn and intractable (not to mention hyperbolic or irrational). What to do, then? Many eastern philosophies, meditation practices, and even modern iterations echoing that ancient wisdom (such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) teach us to pursue what’s valuable, despite the thoughts or feelings that happen to be present in any given moment. I have found that it’s very challenging for teens, who are in a state of deep personal flux, to truly identify what they value. But at least, they should continue pursuing real-life experiences that they can develop and build upon sequentially, like learning an instrument or joining a sports team. If a teen only expresses interest in online or trans-related activities, you may have to step in and take control of the situation (see parenting tips for Low Extroversion above).
Additionally, it's crucial to recognize when a teen is escaping difficult emotions and using trans identity as an avoidance strategy. Feeling "uncomfortable in your birth gender" could be an expression of uncertainty about how to manage unwanted sexual attention or mean-girl bullying. Does taking on a male identity serve as an escape that feels easier than developing coping mechanisms, like self-assertion or even a healthy aggression? Neurotic teens find it very difficult to translate aversive experiences into growth opportunities, and will need a lot of supportive help to do so.
Parenting Tip: I haven’t met many gender-questioning teens in this category, but sometimes kids on the autism spectrum may present with seemingly low neuroticism because they can appear disinterested or detached. In these cases, you can encouraging their particular interests while also systematically teaching them how to broaden their activities and hobbies. These teens may become almost obsessively interested in trans issues, so helping them develop a wider scope of enjoyable experiences is important.
Note on the overlapping of traits and behaviors across categories
These manifestations of the Big Five are neither mutually exclusive, nor precisely expressed in the ways I’ve suggested. Consider how high and low scores from different categories may impact each child’s experience of gender-questioning. Environmental interaction also impacts the expression of personality traits. Traumas, bullying, same-sex attraction, parenting styles, family dynamics, etc., all play a large role in shaping a child’s behavioral patterns. Adolescence itself impacts personality as teens develop over time, learning to navigate emerging social, familial, academic, and personal psychic landscapes.
This has been an interesting exercise for me as a clinician, and in the process of thinking about, researching for, and writing this piece, many useful insights have emerged. I hope the same has been true for you, the reader, and I would encourage you to share your own reflections about how the Big Five have played a role in your family life.
If you would like to learn more, or even take the test yourself, this link includes more information and resources for self administration.