I have an eleven year old daughter who is becoming more of a tomboy these days.  My husband and I feel quite  uncomfortable with her behavior and attitudes.  She wants her hair cut short, refuses to wear skirts and dresses and spends a lot time outside playing with other boys. We don’t know why she is rejecting herself as a girl and don’t know where we went wrong in raising her.  Is there any way to help with this?

Firstly, there are always some children in various cultures who naturally prefer to express themselves in a non-traditional or atypical gender. Sometimes this starts as early as age two or three. Although gender has a biological aspect, it is also psychological, social, emotional, spiritual and cultural.  We expect our children to conform to the norms set by society, which are very binary—boy or girl and nothing in between or mixed. More children are speaking up about wanting freedom to feel, express and be more gender variant or transgender. This can be disorienting and even scary for a parent at first—not knowing what this means and who their child really is and will be in the future.  These concerns help us see how focused we can be on our ideas about what it is to be a male or female and all the expectations we form as a result.

The first rule is to not shame your child for being different. Second, imagine how challenging it can be for a child to not fit into a prescribed model. Some part of them already feels shame, and they are probably fearful of what others will say or do to them. People are harassed, beaten and even killed for being transgender. There is a film called, “Middlesexes,” that I recommend, to understand the complexity and realities of being a transgender person. It also addresses sexual orientation and some developmental stages in a child’s journey. Giving your child a safe, kind, curious and supportive atmosphere that recognizes the complexity of gender identity is needed at this stage.

Take a look at your own beliefs and attitudes about what it is to be a male or female.How did you learn them and how might they be limiting?

If we understand ourselves as energy inhabiting a human body, we realize that we are not only our bodies, but an awareness that is more free and expansive. Most indigenous cultures understood this and offered a respectable place for non-conforming folks to make their contribution through the arts, healing and ritual. This creative, non-dual energy wants to express in a range of ways.  At times during dance or sex or athletics, people lose their usual sense of gender and feel themselves as a different gender. Have you noticed any of this in yourself?

The sooner you clear your preconceptions, the easier it will be to appreciate how your daughter is a person with much richness and positive qualities. Some females have more testosterone than others. Hormonal differences throughout our lives affect how we feel, identify and behave in the world. Looking at these shades of human expression helps us appreciate the mystery, complexity and richness of the human experience.

Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist of Indian descent in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com

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