By Dr Melisa Holmes, OB-GYN & Founder of Girlology
There’s no question that talking about periods and body changes can be awkward and uncomfortable for everyone, but your daughter’s health (and her future health as a young woman) 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, reaching its lowest point around the time of their 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-off science lesson (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 daughters, let me share three tips that make awkward conversations a lot easier and more effective!
Learning how to talk to your daughter about puberty and periods is a key strategy in creating less discomfort around awkward topics because it allows you to share information and normalise it, so it feels like less of a big deal. When you normalise talking about periods, it looks something like this:
As girls begin puberty and navigate through adolescence, they need reassurance that they’re normal. They also feel less anxious when they know what normal changes to expect before they happen. Knowing that they’re normal is a huge part of helping their confidence grow, so when you normalise 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 that they might say the wrong thing entirely. This is the easy part – 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 girls of any age, let’s get into some of the specifics.
Girls 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:
With early drama-free discussions that normalise 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 any time between the age of nine and 16, but the average age is around 12. Menarche (the first period) depends more on the body changes related to puberty than on the girl’s age.
The most accurate predictor of her first period is an increase in her height. Most girls have their biggest and fastest growth spurt about six months before they get 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 will have grown beyond the sparse beginnings of puberty, to a fuller, more triangular shape. A lot of people worry that the first period is near when vaginal discharge begins, but discharge begins earlier in puberty.
Ideally, girls 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 start talking. Although there’s no right or wrong way to start, a lot of adults find it helpful to first ask what their daughter knows, and then take it from there. You don’t need to explain all of puberty and periods in one sitting – 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 scientific details – but be ready to talk about the experience of having a period. Most importantly, keep it positive and reassure her that a period is a sign of health and is necessary for creating life. When parents, especially mums, talk about periods as something important and healthy, their daughters tend to have fewer period-related complaints, and it helps reduce the stigma and feelings of 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 feel awkward or personal, girls respond well to questions about their friends or classmates instead of focusing of their own changes. If talking about puberty, you might ask if your daughter has noticed any friends whose bodies are growing and changing, or if they’ve noticed any friends wearing a bra. As children enter secondary school, there are lots of questions to ask about their friends or their school environment:
Do you know anyone who has started their period?
Have you seen pads or tampons in the sick bay or bathrooms?
What would you do if a friend had a period stain on her PE 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:
Tell me what you know about that
How is that going for them?
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 daughter grows up.
A lot of girls like to think about growing up, so telling them about how their body changes can be a fun way to talk about growing up. Familiarise yourself with the normal timeline of puberty changes, and do your best to let your daughter know what body changes to expect before they happen. It also helps to educate yourself and your daughter about brain changes that happen in puberty – one of which is experiencing greater emotions that change more quickly. Remind your daughter 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 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 do want to know about periods, but in many ways, they haven’t been allowed to join 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 figures for their daughters, 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 become more comfortable and familiar with the topic of 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 become more comfortable talking about it over time – she might even ask you to pick up her next box of tampons!