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How to talk about periods with your kids

Having the period conversation can be awkward for parents and kids, yet an important one to address at the right time. Here’s some tips on how to talk about periods comfortably.

Explaining and dealing with menstruation (periods) for the first time is a parenting milestone most families face – whether we like it or not. If you’re a mum, it may have been decades since you fumbled with your first pads or tampons. If you’re a dad, talking to your children about periods may be no big deal – or it might seem a little daunting. So how do we talk about periods with our kids?

“I think both parents need to be very matter-of-fact about it,” says psychologist Kirstin Bouse. “Both mums and dads have a huge role to play in treating it as a natural part of life and not something you should have any shame about.”

Girls can start menstruating as young as nine, or as late as 16. Most often it’s around the age of 12 or 13.

“The most important thing for parents to know is that we’re the ones who set the tone,” says season two host of our Navigating Parenthood podcast, Rebecca Sparrow. “The more comfortable we can be in talking to our kids about periods, the more comfortable they’ll be in discussing any issues or concerns they have with us.”

Starting the conversation

Primary schools start to furnish kids with age-appropriate information on puberty and periods by age nine or 10, but it’s up to parents to lay the groundwork, says Kirstin.

Your daughter needs to know what’s going to happen in her body before she experiences her first period.

Points to cover with her include:

  • what a period is and how often periods come
  • how much blood will come out and how many days the bleeding is likely to last
  • whether periods hurt and what to do about it
  • how to use and dispose of pads and tampons
  • what to do if she gets her period away from home – at school or camp, for example
  • whether she can swim when she has her period
  • whether she should use tampons or pads first.

“Pack a period kit in your daughter’s school bag just in case,” advises Rebecca. “And once your daughter turns 10, I’d think about setting up a period station in the bathroom at home so she has easy access to pads, a bin and spare underwear.”

And if your daughter doesn’t want to have the conversation? “Books like Welcome to Your Period by Yumi Stynes and Dr Melissa Kang are a great resource for girls to have in their bedroom. They may have questions they want to ask but are too embarrassed to,” adds Rebecca.

How to explain periods

Here’s how to explain what’s happening in a girl or woman’s body when she menstruates.

The menstrual cycle is a cycle of bodily changes controlled by hormones that cause a regular bleed, usually monthly. This bleed – known as a period – comes from the uterus (womb) and leaves the body from the vagina.

The role of the menstrual cycle is to prepare the body for pregnancy. When a pregnancy doesn't happen, you'll get a period. Every woman’s period is different.

Menstruation misconceptions

Being freaked out about periods or unsure of what’s involved in having one is extremely common for young children. “For example, young boys often have this image of a period being like an open wound that’s bleeding profusely,” Kirstin explains.

“When we don’t tell our boys about periods and how they impact girls, we rob them of the chance for them to be allies to the girls and women in their lives,” Rebecca says. “I want to raise sons who know to offer a girl a jumper to tie around her waist if she has an accident at school, or be comfortable buying pads or tampons if necessary.”

Keeping the conversation going

The first conversation you have with your daughter about periods should be the first of many, says Kirstin, especially if she suffers with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or uncomfortable period pain. It’s important your daughter can talk to you about any unusual symptoms. Very heavy bleeding and extreme pain can be signs of a medical condition like endometriosis and may be worth exploring with a GP.

“The early stages are a walk in the park for some girls and excruciating and difficult for others, so staying involved and teaching them that ‘yes, periods are normal but they can also have an impact on your life and need to be managed’, is key,” she says.

Don’t forget to stay educated about modern menstrual products, too – from leak-proof period underwear to innovative menstrual cups and smartphone apps that track your period patterns.

Rebecca adds that it’s important to teach your daughter about self-care. “When she gets her period in those early days, celebrate rather than commiserate. Treat her to a cute hot water bottle, some chocolate and a feel-good movie on the couch with you.”

Great online resources for parents

Words by Rachel Smith
This article first appeared in the November 2020 edition of Health Agenda magazine.

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