Talking to girls about menstruation
Find out how one mother used a science experiment to begin the "period" talk with her girls
One day, when my daughters were ages 8 and 9, I invited them into the kitchen where I had placed a bowl of water and a box of tampons on the counter. “You want to see something cool?” I asked, ripping open a package and dropping a tampon into the bowl. Their eyes grew big as saucers. Neat! They wanted to know more and this became my way to start the “period” talk with my girls.
As they dropped an entire box of tampons into the water one at a time, watching the cotton expanded to several times its original size, I gave them some more information about periods. What did I say? Well, I pulled out my laptop and I showed them a kid-friendly illustration I’d found online (see list of resources below). I talked about how women’s bodies were designed to carry babies, but also about how periods are a normal part of our lives, whether we have children or not.
It was $10 well spent. They were absorbed by the science project (pardon the pun) and it didn’t feel like a big serious talk about something yucky or scary. I answered their questions frankly, using medically appropriate terms for body parts but mostly offered reassurance that getting their periods would be a normal, healthy part of their lives.
My girls, like most kids growing up in our culture these days, already knew a certain amount about menstruation. I’d never hidden the topic from them — they’d heard my friends and I discussing our periods because I wanted to make sure the subject wouldn’t be shrouded in mystery or shame when their own bodies began to change.
Yet, despite my, and many women's efforts, there is still a lot of misinformation about menstruation. Girls worry about whether they could (or should) use tampons, how much it will hurt, whether they can carry on with normal activities, or even whether they can go swimming.
But, what may surprise parents is that factual information is just one part of the picture. A study published in the journal Adolescence (1995) asked ninth grade girls what they really wanted most from the trusted adults in their lives when they were going through puberty. About the third responded that they most wanted “support and reassurance,” while only 17 per cent wanted the biological facts. So any parent who makes their children feel comfortable about their bodies from a young age and is open to having regular conversations about such matters is on the right track.
Thanks to an information-saturated culture, girls today seem well informed about their period and less uncomfortable talking about it than in previous generations, according to Montreal pediatrician Dr. Dyan Kimia. In fact, she observes that many girls are actually excited to get their period but often worry about when it will start.
She tells her young patients that it depends on a lot of factors, including genetics. Normal puberty can start as early as 8 with breast bud development; the first period (called menarche) usually follows about 18 months to two year later. However, a large group of girls will get their periods around ages 11 or 12 with a smaller number getting them in the early and mid-teens.
For girls who have started their periods, one of the common set of questions is how to manage the discomfort or pain. Dr. Kimia suggests starting with non-medicinal methods like heating pads and then trying anti-inflammatory medication like Ibuprofen (such as Advil) or Naproxen. However, if a girl is missing school or other activities because of pain, she should consult with a heath care provider for additional help, adds Dr. Kimia.
Another common concern for young girls is whether it’s OK to use tampons. “I tell them they can use a tampon as long as they are going to change it every four hours and not wear it overnight. You don’t want to leave it in too long because of [concerns about] toxic shock syndrome,” Dr. Kimia says.
Girls also need to know that irregular periods are very common in the first two years, since many of them don’t ovulate right away. And since it is ovulation that causes pain and cramping, most periods in the early years may not be too uncomfortable. Dr. Kimia says that if the menstruation goes on for a long time or there is a lot of bleeding, your child should be seen by a doctor.
As mothers around the world know, getting your period is a normal part of life; albeit one that most of us could easily do without. Talking to your children about menstruation is important, especially before they reach puberty. And if you are having a hard time bringing up the topic, why not grab a bowl of water, some tampons and start with a little science experiment!
Talking about menstruation
The Canadian site, Sexuality and U, has an entire section devoted to menstruation:
The Canadian Pediatric Society has information for young women on changes that occur in puberty, including menstruation:
Children's Hospital Colorado has an excellent page on menstruation, which includes helpful illustrations and diagrams: