Dr Jo Olson-Kennedy, world leading expert in support for trans children, recently gave a talk at Gender Odyssey in Seattle. She provided with great clarity a wonderful overview of puberty, blockers and hormones for trans children and adolescents. The talk was recorded, and for the benefit of those interested in best practices in healthcare for trans children, I’ve written a transcript of sections of the second half (any errors in transcription are mine).
This was a talk aimed, in part, at parents of trans kids. Note the level of knowledge and the effort to explain complex topics to parents. We never hear anything like this level of sophistication combined with practical guidance from the ‘experts’ in the UK. In part this is because the UK ‘experts’ do not see their role as one of education, and in part it is because the UK ‘experts’ do not have anywhere near this level of knowledge.
Two other things you’ll note from Jo Olson-Kennedy’s presentation that you never hear from UK GIDS. 1: Respect and 2: Individualised care.
Note how each child is treated with respect and dignity. Note how each child is provided with individualised care intended to meet that child’s need. No rigid, harmful, one-size fits all protocols. No defensive or transphobic practices either.
The UK children’s gender service is run by psychologists, psychotherapists and psychoanalysts with a few psychiatrists and social workers on the team. Not one paediatrician. Jo Olson-Kennedy, on the other hand, is a paediatric Medical Doctor. Similarly, the head of the Australian Children’s Gender Service, Michelle Telfler is a paediatrician.
It is time to move UK trans children’s healthcare out of the hands of psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. Being trans is not a mental health condition. We need medical doctors and affirmative counsellors to build resilience, along with family therapists, the latter as much to support and educate parents, as to support the child. Mental health specialists only getting involved to support either where there is a mental health issue, noting that gender identity is not in itself a mental health condition, or where a client expresses a desire for psychotherapy.
Supported trans children have good levels of mental health and do not need engagement with a mental health service. Instead, they need knowledgeable experts with empathy, ability to build resilience and confidence, and paediatric medical doctors with the ability to treat trans children with dignity, care and respect. Moving trans healthcare from specialist mental health facilities to medical doctors (eg in primary care) is common place in other countries (including parts of Canada) and could easily be introduced here.
On to Jo Olson-Kennedy’s presentation, first on puberty tanner stages:
“Everyone is born at tanner 1, there is no zero. For people with overies tanner 2 is the differentiation of the nipple areola complex from the rest of the chest and there are palpable buds that feel like buttons, that is tanner stage 2 of chest development. Tanner 3 is actual chest tissue that is different from the fat chest wall. For people with testes T2 is testicular enlargement to 4 ccs, we use an orchiometer to assess testes size, 1 inch long half an inch wide.
Pubertal timeslines are different in overian and testicular puberty. For trans masculine kids we’re talking about 9, 10, 11 (these estimates are for white kids, people of colour go through puberty at earlier ages). Preventing puberty is needed earlier for trans masculine kids.
Peak growth velocity is also different and happens at different stages of puberty. For people with ovaries the greatest changes are in stages 2 and 3 of puberty. For people with testes the greatest changes are at tanner 3 or 4. When we think of the timelines for preventing pubertal changes we have to pay more attention to our trans masculine kids than our trans feminine kids because the changes that are really horrible for trans girls are later, you don’t go to tanner 2 and get a moustache or facial hair, your voice doesn’t even drop, those are all later.
What precedes gonadal puberty is adrenal gland development. This is critical. Because 6 to 18 months before your gonads started chugging away, your adrenal glands start, in all bodies, putting out a hormone (DHEA?) which is an androgen like hormone. This causes pubic hair, axillary hair, body odour, and parents who have kids who have transitioned at 5 will have body odour panic, pubic hair panic ad I want you to know that if this is happening at 7 or 8 years old it is probably not gonadal puberty it is probably adrenal gland development, and there is no way to block that and we would not want to, the adrenal glands are super critical to life.
What happens when puberty starts?
When puberty starts your hypothalamus talks to your pituitary gland through a hormone called gonadotropin releasing hormone (GNRH), and gonadotropin releasing hormone is called that because it causes the pituitary gland to release gonadotropins, which are lutinising hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). This is true of everybodies body. This stimulates your gonads to release their sex steroids. Early in puberty and throughout puberty you secrete gonadatrophin releasing hormone in pulses, it is diurnal, once in the morning, once in the evening, LH and FSH come out in pulses, and sex steroids come out in pulses, all these things are on a feedback loop, when there is a lot of sex steroid it feeds back to reduce production.
If you have ovaries you get oestrogen and progesterone and breast development, wider hips, periods. If you have testes you get facial hair, adams apple, broadening of shoulders etc.
Case study: 10 year old assigned female at birth, socially transitioned at 5. 5 months before I got the phone call the kid’s chest development had started and they would not come out from under their bed and go to school. 10 years old. Horrific anxiety. These kind of cases. There’s really no challenge to them. They are not complicated. This kid needs blockers.
How do blockers work?
We give a biosynthetic or analogue version of gonadotrophin releasing hormone. It is called a blocker but really that is an erroneous term, it is actually an analogue, instead of getting it in pulses, instead the body gets it in a steady state, the receptors get down regulated and now no signal to the gonads to make sex steroids. It is specific to this particular pattern of development. Does not impact your thyroid. Does not impact your growth hormone. Does not impact your social development or your cognitive development. We mimic the action of GNRH and down regulate those receptors and you do not now have a message from your brain to your gonads. When you go onto continuous GNRH you get a giant pulse and then it comes down after those receptors are down regulated. That is really important because if your kid is going to go on to a blocker, they may have 4 or 5 weeks of crappy. They may have 4 or 5 weeks of emotional lability because they are getting a strong message to release their endogenous hormone and that can be really upsetting to people.
How do we know they are reversible?
Because we use GNRH analogues for a whole load of other medical conditions, we use GNRH analogues for people who start puberty at 6, 7, or 5, we don’t want them to go into puberty at 5 for a whole host of reasons. We use GNRH analogues whenever we want to shut down the hypothalamus pituitary gonad axis, so if you have a hormone dependent tumour, we want to stop the production of hormones eg prostate cancer. Also for endometriosis.
Kids have puberty panic when they are trans ‘oh no I’m going to wake up with a beard’ – so it’s real important to talk to kids and say puberty is a process, you don’t go from tanner 1 to tanner 4 in a day, that’s not how that happens. But they are very vigilant and I have a lot of trans girls in my practice who are ‘I’m pretty sure I have facial hair’ and their voice is super high and I’m like ‘no, that’s not the order of that, that’s not how it goes’, so it’s important to have those conversations. But if you’re that panicked you actually can’t participate in your life, because this is taking up a lot of bandwidth.
So how do we do this? One is injectable and the most common one we use in the USA is Lupron. There is a subcutaneous one but doesn’t have an intermediate dose so can be challenging, then there is an implant that has a medication called Histrellin which is also a GNRH analogue, Histrellin is a really small implant, goes under the arm, lasts for 2-3 years, we take them out at 2 years as our surgeons find they become more embedded after 2 years and are harder to get out.
No blockers are FDA approved for trans care, not because we haven’t been using hormones for one hundred years because we have, but because there are levels of discrimination at our highest places.
Histrellin implants are sold as two brands, one has a pediatric indication in precocious puberty – 50mg histrellin secretes 65 micrograms a day. The other one has an adult indication, it has 50 mg histrellin secretes 50 mg a day. Both are equally efficacious in suppressing puberty in kids with gender dysphoria, there is a significant difference in cost. None of these are FDA approved so you may as well get the cheaper one which is $4,000, the other one is $35,000. Equally effective. I’m about to publish a study on this.
We have a discrepancy between the Endocrine Guidelines recommendations about blockers and what actually happens on the ground. So the Endocrine Guidelines recommends puberty blockers early to avoid development of secondary sex characteristics that are undesirable at tanner 2, tanner 3. But then they also recommend hormones at 16. The newest Endocrine Guidelines address this and says there are compelling reasons to start earlier than 16.
What happens is a lot of 13 and 14 year old trans masculine kids come (to the service), they are already through puberty, because they started at 10. When they go on to GNRH analogues, because that is what the guidelines guide you to do, they go in to menopause. They are in chemically inducted menopause, which means they have hot flashes, they will have insomnia, they will have short term memory problems, they will have exacerbation of depression. This is not really addressed and I wish more people, as they do this clinical work, are going to understand that this is 100% true. So we in my practice we actually add in low dose testosterone for kids who are around 13, 14 or so, because it helps mitigate those symptoms and I think that is really important.
Weight gain. Super common in kids going on blockers because of the complicated interaction of all of the hormones of puberty. Emotional lability – some kids just do not do well and I will tell you that I have more people having challenges with injections than implant. I just think it has to do with not getting a steady dose and getting blocker wearing off towards the end of the 3 months. Also, your kid does not need to go to the OR for an implant, it is a ten minute out patient procedure to numb the kid’s arm and put it in.
Transfeminine folks on GNRH analogues and small doses of oestrogen. Argh! I feel like in some ways we suspend those kids in the worst part of female puberty. It’s like ‘hey sit here for 6 months – none of your friends will be but here you go’ and it’s really hard on them, so the dosing can be problematic. I’m going to talk about that in hormones 201 this afternoon.
Bone density is important to keep an eye on. Bones density is the amount of bone material inside the bone – it starts going up much more rapidly at puberty, so when you go on blockers you now do not have that rapid increase so getting bone density scans at baseline to make sure someone isn’t starting with really low bone density is important, but also every year. Some people think we don’t need to do that, but there hasn’t been an awful lot published on this so we do it from a safety perspective.
Growth velocity slows down when you’re on blockers and here’s why. Kids still grow on blockers but don’t grow as rapidly as they would if they had not gone on blockers. This was a study which came out of the Netherlands which showed when you add in cross sex hormones there is a jump in bone density.
It is really hard to predict linear growth. I can show you my growth charts which have only increased my consternation about this. For trans masculine kids remember, most people with ovaries get to their final adult height 18 months after their first period, so in general if you are making mostly oestrogen in your body you are going to close your growth plates faster. Most people who have a testosterone driven puberty grow well on into adolescence.
Here’s an example growth chart for a trans masculine kid, they had their period here, and would have stopped growing 18 months later. But they went on to blockers and grew slowly and then went on to low dose Testosterone and that growth velocity picked back up again. This is a boy’s growth chart because that is what we are looking at, the growth of a trans boy on a boy’s growth chart.
Here is a trans girl’s growth chart. Here she is growing at a pretty rapid growth. Goes on a blocker, it slows down. Goes on a low dose oestrogen, look at this – holy moly! So that kid was completely panicked, the kid by this point was 15 and a half and some folks would be like ‘you can’t put that kid on an adult dose of oestrogen’ but yes you can and so I did, and it flattened out, I don’t yet know if this kid’s growth plates have closed or not.
When you measure growth velocity per year, pre-puberty 9 cm a year, on the blocker moves down to 7, then moves up to 13 cm (on low dose oestrogen), so that’s really fast for oestrogen. Oestrogen, both for oestrogen and testosterone driven puberty is what accelerates growth but then is also what closes the growth plates. Complicated.
Here’s another case study: This kid started blockers – most of my trans girls start blockers around 11 and a half or 12. On blockers growth slows down, put this kid on an escalating oestrogen and then growth goes up really high, then I said we need to up the dose of oestrogen to flatten out the growth curve, which it looks like we have.
In assigned females peak growth velocity occurs in tanner 2 in 40% individuals and 30% in tanner 3.
In assigned males peak growth velocity occurs in tanner 3.
Also growth isn’t stopped in all parts of the body simultaneously. Hands and feet fuse first, then arms and legs, followed by spine. When we do a bone age we do a hand scan and that might be premature for our trans boys.
Can we use blockers in later pubertal adolescents and young adults? Absolutely. Especially if parents or kids are not ready for hormones yet, if they are like ‘no I don’t want to do that yet’ or if the parents are (not on board), so there can be a role for blockers in kids who are not in tanner 2 or 3. But you have to be careful, especially about menopause.
You can use blockers alongside gender affirming hormones. This is important, because trans girls always have to be blocked, somehow, until they have no testes. But if someone is not planning to have that surgery, they will always need to be blocked, because they always have the potential for producing testosterone.
Non-binary. So many of my non-binary are ‘can I be on blockers forever?’ No. you cannot. Hormones are sadly binary. I am cool with non-binary kids being on blockers for maybe 2 years, around, but then I get nervous about bone density so we have to have that conversation.
Here are two case examples. Both 14 year olds, showing everyone needs an individualised approach. 14 year old assigned female had period year before I saw them, came out a year ago as male, some menstrual and chest dysphoria, no suicidal attempts, was socially transitioned living as himself. Same week, 14 year old assigned female. Happy childhood. Typical very common story for transmasculine kids, tom boy, sporty, at age 11 tanked, when puberty hit multiple suicide attempts, multiple hospitalisations, also socially transitioned living as male, kid felt very strongly about needing peer concordance, was already at tanner 5. First kid said ‘I want to be on blockers’. Second kid said ‘I want nothing to do with blockers I want to be on testosterone’. And that was right for him and he’s done great.
[Editor’s Note: earlier in the talk Jo Olson Kennedy makes reference to a WPATH presentation last year, where an unnamed person, said that almost all the kids they see who go on blockers continue in the service and they have no idea why. Jo Olson-Kennedy said she does know why those kids continue in the service – because they are trans! In the final section Jo Olson-Kennedy provides two case studies of examples she has come across when kids have decided to come off blockers.]
Let me tell you about 2 kids who went on blockers and chose to stop.
This kid, assigned female, started saying ‘I a boy’ at 18 months. At 3 years old the kid was in an enormous amount of distress saying I’m a boy. At three kid socially transitioned, started living as a boy. Lived as a boy – also liked dolls and sparkly shoes. Asked ‘if I’m a boy and I like girl’s clothes, am I cross-dressing?’ Said ‘I will live as a boy at elementary school, as a girl at middle school, and by high school I’ll know what’s right for me’. The kid decided to live as a girl at 9. 2 months later called me saying I have breast buds, I need a blocker. Said didn’t want breasts and wanted time to think. Went on blockers for 2 years. 2 years later came in and said I want blocker removed, I want to go through female puberty. I said ‘what is happening with your gender?’ They said ‘well, I don’t know yet’. I said ‘well what if it lands on boy’. The kid said ‘It’s 2017, who says boys can’t have boobs’. Touche small child, I will take your blocker out. So I took the blocker out and the kid continues to live as a girl. A year later calls to say ‘do you know where I can get a binder’. And I was like ‘oh your mum wants to pole her eyes out right now’. So this kid is extraordinary and their gender is still happening. And I asked them, do you think your parents should have supported you to live as a boy for so long, and they said, ‘I wouldn’t be here now if they hadn’t’. So that is testament to what it means to socially transition, go on blockers, come off blockers.
Another kid, assigned female, got blocked at 9, started testosterone at 13, discontinued both a year later, went through their endogenous puberty identifying as non-binary and a year later came back to start testosterone again.
So all of this is ok, and it’s all good and everyone’s going to go on their journey whether we want them to or not and we can make it easier”.