By: Dr. Melisa Holmes, OB-GYN, & Founder, Girlology
There’s no question that talking about periods and body changes can be awkward and uncomfortable for everyone, but girls’ health (and their future health as young women) depends on us getting past our own discomfort to provide accurate information and support from a young age.
Research confirms that girls’ confidence plummets during puberty and reaches its lowest point around the time of her first period. It’s also well established that public education on puberty and reproductive health is inconsistent across school systems and often limited to a one-time discussion (or sometimes totally absent).
The best way to ensure our children grow up confident and informed about their bodies and how they work is have more of these conversations at home. To help you support your children, let me share 3 tips that make awkward conversations a lot easier and more effective!
This is a key strategy in creating more comfort around awkward topics because it allows you to share information that is seen as “business-as-usual” and “no big deal.” When you drop the drama, it looks like this:
As girls begin puberty and proceed through adolescence, they need reassurance that they’re normal. They also have less anxiety when they know what normal changes to expect before they happen. Knowing that they’re normal is a big part of helping their confidence grow, so when you normalize normal, it looks like this:
One of the things I hear most from parents is that they want to have these conversations, but they worry that they don’t have all the facts or they might say the wrong thing. This is where it gets easy! It’s actually better to stay curious and learn together, than to think you have all the answers already. When you’re not a know-it-all, it looks like this (hint: it’s good!):
So now that you understand the basic philosophy of HOW to talk about awkward topics more effectively with kids of any age, let’s get into some of the details:
Kids should definitely understand periods well before they have one or hear about their peers having one, but there is no age that’s too young to start talking. For young children, a discussion of periods often happens when they see their mother or an older sibling using period products. That’s a perfect time to use your “no big deal” attitude and explain
1.) that a period is just a normal part of life
2.) it isn’t always painful (even though there’s blood)
3.) pads or tampons are how we take care of it.
With early drama-free discussions that normalize periods, it becomes a lot easier to add the details they need as they approach or begin puberty.
The normal age range for a first period is anytime between 9 and 16, but the average age is around 12. Menarche (the first period) depends more on the body changes related to puberty than on her age.
The most accurate predictor of her first period is her increase in height. Most girls have their biggest and fastest growth spurt about 6 months before their first period, but other body changes can signal it’s close, too. Her first period typically starts when her breasts have developed beyond breast buds and have a fuller appearance. Similarly, pubic hair has grown in beyond the sparse beginnings of puberty, to a fuller triangular shape. A lot of people worry that the first period is near when vaginal discharge begins, but discharge begins earlier in puberty.
Ideally, kids should know what changes to expect during puberty before those changes happen, including periods. If you’ve already noticed breast buds, it’s definitely time to get talking! Although there’s no right or wrong way to start, a lot of adults find it helpful to first ask what their child knows, and then take it from there. You don’t need to explain all of puberty and periods in one discussion. In fact, it’s better to have ongoing, shorter conversations to establish yourself as a willing and reliable go-to. You also don’t have to know all the science details, but be ready to talk about the experience of having a period. Most importantly, keep it positive and reassure that a period is a sign of health and is necessary for creating life. When parents, especially moms, talk about periods as something important and healthy, their children have less period-related complaints, and it helps reduce the stigma and embarrassment around periods.
Starting conversations about puberty and periods with questions is always a great idea. When it comes to talking about topics that may seem awkward or personal, kids respond well to questions about their friends or classmates instead of focusing of their own changes. If talking about puberty, you might ask if you child has noticed any friends whose bodies are growing fast or if they’ve noticed any friends wearing a bra. As children enter middle school, there are lots of questions to ask about their friends or their school environment:
1) Do you know anyone who has started their period?
2) Have you seen pads or tampons in your school health room or bathrooms?
3) What would you do if a friend had a period stain on her gym shorts?
Follow up with open ended questions (not yes-no questions) to guide you into deeper and more personal discussions. You can say things like
1) Tell me what you know about that
2) How is that going for them?
3) What are you curious about?
There are no right or wrong questions, but staying curious and calm will open a lot of doors for important conversations as your child grows up.
A lot of children like to think about growing up, so telling them about their body changes can be a fun way to talk about growing up. Familiarize yourself with the normal timeline of puberty changes, and do your best to let your child know what body changes to expect before they happen. It also helps to educate yourself and your child about brain changes that happen in puberty – one of which is bigger emotions that change faster. Remind your child that emotions are a normal response to things she experiences, so it’s important to acknowledge feelings – big or small, and learn healthy ways to manage those big emotions.
Yes! All kids are curious, and they are especially curious about each other’s bodies. When boys learn about girls’ bodies and how they work, they become more supportive and empathetic friends, partners, brothers, and fathers. Boys want to know about periods, but in many ways, they haven’t been “allowed” in those conversations. Part of the shame and stigma around menstruation has been linked to the secrecy and “girls-only” mentality of past generations. When we remove the barriers to learning about each other’s bodies and how they work, everyone wins.
Dads are such important champions for their kids, and talking about puberty and periods should be one more thing they’re great at. Most Dads didn’t grow up with a lot of information about puberty and periods, but today, there are more and more dads stepping up to learn, ask questions, and get more comfortable with periods. For dads new to period talk, the easiest way to start is to acknowledge that you understand a little about periods and you know they’re normal, healthy, and nothing to be embarrassed about. Then you can ask your daughter to help you learn more, and let her lead. She may need to get used to things herself at first, but with your continued support and positive attitude, she’ll get more comfortable over time – she might even ask YOU to pick up her next box of tampons.