Our wellbeing columnist Erica Chidi is here to answer our pressing questions about sex, health and overall wellbeing. Today, she’s talking about how to teach young girls about their periods. Here’s her smart advice…
Q. My daughter is entering adolescence, and I’m nervous about the mixed messages she might be getting about menstruation — from her friends, from school, from media, etc. I want to teach her about menstrual hygiene in a way that feels empowered and shame-free. But I also don’t want to overwhelm her. Any tips on approaching this in a way that makes everyone feel comfortable? Is that even possible? — Cora
A. Great news: It is. And you’re already on the right track by taking such proactive approach. One of the first questions I ask students in my Roadmap: Periods class at LOOM, is ‘What do you remember about getting your first period?’ So often, they’ll describe feeling unsupported by their parents, feeling shame and anxiety, or having no discussion at all around the subject. So kudos to you for wanting to lift that veil and make this a positive experience.
Keep in mind that there’s a broad age range for the onset of menstruation. The average age in the U.S. is 12, but it may happen much earlier. And age can make a big difference here. Depending on how old she is, your daughter may be more fearful or more excited, she may or may not have friends who have gone through this — and either way, you can’t know exactly how she’ll react to her first period. So, when the day comes, it’s important to meet and match her emotions. Don’t express more excitement or anxiety than she is. If she’s uncomfortable or sad — which is a very common response — just affirm that: ‘I totally understand that you’re feeling sad, and I understand your frustrations. But let’s get you set up with everything you need, so you feel prepared. I think that might help make this easier.’
Here’s where hygiene comes in — and again, age matters. If she’s on the younger side, her school may not have menstrual products available in the bathrooms, or receptacles in the stalls to dispose of them. And she may not want to have to leave the stall and throw them away in front of her classmates. I always recommend getting a wet bag, where she can store used products in a discreet, sanitary way, until she gets home. I like the ones from Glad Rags and Aisle. (Of course, she doesn’t have to do this. I wouldn’t automatically instruct her not to toss her pads in public if she doesn’t seem bothered.) I’d also suggest getting her some flushable wipes, in case she has to deal with excess blood or leaks (it happens to us all, right?). [Update from readers: Don’t flush these!] A couple basic accessories like these can help give your daughter a greater sense of autonomy and privacy. That’s key.
As for the menstrual products themselves, I do recommend pads as the best way to start. I like LOLA pads (and tampons — they have a First Period Kit, too!). Give her the basic instructions on how to place them, and remind her to try and change them about every four hours. This is also a good place to remind her that period blood — especially during your first few cycles — isn’t always bright red like in the movies. It’s often more brown in the beginning, and that’s totally normal.
Later, when she’s well acclimated to getting her period, you might introduce tampons, menstrual cups and “period panties” — all of which are wonderful options! Aisle makes period underwear, and Lunette is a great first menstrual cup. For first timers, I always recommend trying out these things out at home on a weekend. She’s in a safe, familiar environment and you’re there if she has any questions. Even if she doesn’t, she might just feel better knowing her mom is around.
When it comes to dealing with menstrual products, I strongly encourage you to involve your daughter in the process. Take her shopping for them or do the research online together. If she’s too freaked out or embarassed to hit the maxi-pad aisle in public, that’s fine. Show her the products in the privacy of her room. But I think it’s important that it be a conversation — rather than just telling her, ‘They’re in the bathroom,’ and leaving her to figure it out on her own. The same goes for period panties or reusable pads. You don’t want to just take them to launder yourself. This is an opportunity to each your daughter about washing her intimate clothing and getting her comfortable with menstruation. It might seem like a small thing, but it’s a key element in mitigating all that cultural shame and secrecy around periods.
On that note, you may also want to offer some helpful books that she can read on her own. My absolute favorite is Celebrate Your Body (and Its Changes, Too!): The Ultimate Puberty Book for Girls, by Sonya Renee Taylor. She’s the founder of The Body Is Not An Apology (an online community and educational platform, which is also great to explore).
At every stage, just remember to follow your daughter’s lead. I applaud your intention to instill a healthy, positive attitude about menstruation. But always meet her where she’s at. Don’t push her into a philosophy around menstruation if she’s not mentally ready — just as you wouldn’t push her into tampons if she didn’t want to try them. You’re her mom, and you should always be involved, but if you get a little pushback that’s okay. In fact, that’s just as developmentally normal in adolescence as menstruation. Right now, your daughter is learning a lot about her (rapidly changing) body, and she might feel a little secretive about it. But secrecy is not necessarily shame. Allow her that privacy and let her feel autonomous. But always remind her you’re there.
Erica Chidi is the Co-founder and CEO of LOOM, a wellbeing brand empowering women through sexual and reproductive health. Through her book, Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth and Early Motherhood and her work as both a doula and health educator, she has guided thousands of people in their transition from pregnancy to parenthood. Erica also educates people on pleasure, relationships and self-care by providing an inclusive and shame-free perspective. She began her practice in San Francisco, volunteering as a doula within the prison system and continues to work with organizations that serve marginalized communities.
Thank you so much, Erica! Do you have a sex, health or wellness question for Erica? Please feel free to share in the comments.