My first period talk

I was 11 years old when I had that first period talk with my mother. She explained periods and what to expect and finished off the conversation with “There is no need to tell your father when it happens”. I was a very skinny, under-developed 11 year old so it didn’t happen for a few years. Needless to say I didn’t inform my father about the news when the big day finally arrived! There was no real acknowledgement that something momentous has just happened for me – it was all kept very quiet.

My aunt told me a story about her experience way back in the late 1950s. She was small and thin and got her first period at age 11 at school – she had never had “the talk”, so she thought she was dying and ran to tell the nun in school what had happened. My grandmother was in hospital at the time and she was given a very large skirt to wear home which was way too big for her tiny frame. My grandad asked her why she was wearing it when she arrived home from school as she pushed past him and responded “The nun told me not to tell you anything”.  As a much older woman, she could still recall the trauma of that day. Isn’t it so sad that our mother’s generation created so much secrecy and shame around a perfectly, healthy bodily function – something that is so intrinsic to our power and energy as women.

We are living in different times thankfully – we can make sure that our own daughters are well informed and well prepared for menarche (their first period). By being totally open and transparent with our own daughters we can heal our own “inner adolescent” that part of us that maybe felt embarrassment or shame having gone through puberty during a time when it was a totally taboo subject. The more comfortable we are as mothers with the subject, the more comfortable our girls will be too.

Educate yourself on the physiology of puberty and the menstrual cycle

This is a great opportunity to brush up on your own knowledge of the physiology of puberty and ensure that you understand the menstrual cycle in detail. You need to be clear yourself before you can pass this information on to your child. Your daughter will have lots of questions. When you are well informed, you will feel so much more confident in providing the answers to those questions.

What age should you start having conversations?

We were recently asked this question in a radio interview so it is worthwhile exploring this subject. Girls are getting their period earlier now than previous generations. There are a number of reasons for this but diet is certainly a huge factor.

If you were lucky back in the day, you had one conversation or maybe you just received the pink pamphlet at school. One conversation doesn’t work though. Many short, conversations over a period of time prove to be much more effective. Depending on the girl’s age, she will only take in what is actually relevant to her at that particular time. As a result it is never really too early to have that first period talk!

A 6 year old might ask questions about your bra when she sees you undressing or about sanitary products if she is going shopping with you. These are great “teachable moments” – opportunities to impart some basic information, explaining that a girl’s body changes as she grows up. When her breasts begin to grow, she can choose to wear a bra. Another big change that happens is that she can have a baby when she grows up. The baby grows in a part of the body called the uterus. The uterus prepares for a baby every month and if there is no baby then the girl has a period – a little bleed that comes out of the vagina and that is the reason that older girls and women need to use sanitary products.

She doesn’t need to know all of the details but you have already begun the process of normalising puberty and periods. Never hide your sanitary products and always try to give a truthful answer when your daughter asks you a question – no lies, no secrecy, no shame.

A significant percentage of girls will have their period before leaving primary school so if you leave that conversation until your daughter is 11 years of age, you risk her having a very traumatic experience, especially if her first period happens at school or in a friend’s house. There is also a good chance that she will hear about it from friends and will then consult the internet for further information, where she will have access to all levels of detail and images. This can be very overwhelming for young girls. You want to be the main informant here so that you can set your daughter up for a very positive experience around adolescence and periods generally.

You really need to have the lines of communication open around this at 8 years of age. You may think that 8 is still too young and you don’t want to impact her innocence but it is amazing how accepting an 8 year old is. Give her some of the basic information if this is her first period talk. (outlined in the paragraph below).  She may be very curious and have lots of questions. If so, answer her questions clearly and concisely and matter-of-factly. As she gets older, she will want to know more details as she will be able to assimilate more in-depth relevant information at that point. You want to be able to have open, on-going conversations about the changes that are occurring in both her body and mind as she moves through puberty. Continue to reassure her that she can talk to you about everything – any physical changes, any thoughts and any feelings.

Topics to cover in the first period talk:

In words that feel comfortable for you, start to educate your daughter on the following topics:

  1. Explain the term “Puberty”

Puberty refers mainly to the physical transformations which occur (usually between the ages of 9 and 14) when girls’ bodies go through a sequence of changes. This is a healthy sign and is completely normal.

  1. Explain the usual sequence of body changes during puberty.

Before any obvious physical signs, there are hormonal changes occurring in the brain often from age 6-8 years, which gradually influence a cascade of changes including:

  • Breast development
  • Height spurt
  • Female fat deposits
  • Pubic hair development (and possibly acne)
  • Genital development
  • Vulvovaginal discharge
  • Menarche (the first period)

These stages overlap and there is a further limited increase in height after a girl gets her period.

  1. Use correct anatomical words.

It is a good idea to use anatomical words as there is less room for confusion – Don’t be afraid to talk about menstruation, breasts, pubic hair, vulvas, vaginas. (If you are uncomfortable using these words, it is a good opportunity to embark on some personal development to work on letting go any issues you might have yourself around this area).

  1. Reassure her that the process is different for every girl

Each girl goes through puberty at her own pace. Some girls will start puberty very early, developing breasts at age 8 or 9 while others will develop a lot later and may not get a period until age 15 or 16.

  1. Talk about the first period and what she can expect.

It is not uncommon for a girl to get a period and then nothing for many months. Over the course of 2-5 years periods will usually become predictable and more manageable.

  1. Prepare for the chance that she might get a period when at school.

You could put a couple of pads in one of the pockets of her school bag. Make sure she feels prepared for this scenario.

  1. Physical and hormonal changes impact mood.

It is a good idea to talk about this so that your daughter understands that her mood may fluctuate throughout the month – there may be highs and lows – again, this is not unusual, just part of going through puberty. For most girls, this will go away shortly after her period arrives.

  1. Be prepared with answers to some common questions that girls have around periods:
  • Why do girls get periods?
  • What age are most girls when they get their first period?
  • How long does a period last for?
  • How much blood will there be?
  • How often do girls get a period?
  • Does this mean I can have a baby?

Key takeaways to prepare you for that first period talk:

  • Open up the lines of communication from a young age and always give age-appropriate information. You can start by answering questions or gently imparting very high level information when a “teachable moment” presents itself.
  • Never lie or avoid questions. If you are unprepared when she asks you a question, tell your daughter that her question is a great question, tell her you need to think about how to best answer it and you’ll get back to her soon. Make sure you do!
  • Don’t hide your own sanitary products – be open about having your period.
  • Make sure that your daughter understands that getting her period is a sign that her body is completely normal and healthy.
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