Starting THE conversation about periods and reproduction can feel overwhelming. It is common for parents to put it off or not have a chat at all because of a range of their emotions. But pretending the changes to our bodies do not exist will not make it so. And putting off giving children information about their own reproductive health can perpetuate shame and leave them without the knowledge to know when something they experience is of concern.
Having discussions about your child’s changing body does not have to be a big deal. Kids don’t automatically associate menstruating and reproduction with sex or sexuality the way adults do. Consider how much more difficult it is to explain any complicated system to a young adult versus a small child.
Let’s talk about some of the strategies parents and caregivers can use to foster an open and supportive dialogue about periods and healthy bodies.
- Start Early: Lay the Foundation
Regardless of your child’s gender, talk about periods should begin at an early age. Small children have a natural curiosity about the world around them and their own bodies. And taking the opportunity to answer the easiest questions early on will help pave the way for gradually more detailed conversations about reproduction as they grow. Create a safe space early, for your own good, as much as for your child.
Here are some key points to consider:
- Language Matters: Use accurate and inclusive terminology while discussing periods. Explain that menstruation is a natural process that occurs in people with a uterus, using simple and easy-to-understand language. Children who are only taught cutesy or slang words when they are young often grow up to be afraid to use the proper words and may not seek the information and care they need. Though it is not intentional, the nicknames we give body parts contribute to the shame and stigma that surround menstruation. Consistent use of words like vagina and penis takes the sting out of them and empowers children to learn more about how their bodies function.
- Body Literacy: Teach children about their bodies, emphasizing the basics of reproductive anatomy. Provide a general understanding of how menstruation occurs, its purpose, and the bodily changes associated with it. These lessons are appropriate for all children, no matter their gender.
- Normalize Period Talk: Incorporate discussions about periods into everyday conversations. For instance, mention pads or tampons when shopping or casually discuss menstrual health products to remove the stigma surrounding them. Leaving period products in places children can find and ask about them is an easy way to start a conversation at an age-appropriate level.
- Encourage Open Dialogue
Creating an open and safe environment for discussions about periods is crucial. By fostering open dialogue, parents can ensure their children feel comfortable asking questions, sharing concerns, and seeking guidance. Here’s how to promote such an environment:
- Active Listening: Be attentive and receptive when your child expresses curiosity or asks questions about periods. Encourage open-ended conversations and validate their feelings and experiences. Active listening shows that you value their thoughts and encourages further engagement.
- Answer Questions Honestly: Be prepared to answer questions about periods truthfully. Provide age-appropriate information and gradually expand upon the topic as they grow older. Address common misconceptions, myths, and stereotypes to promote accurate understanding.
- Involve All Genders: It is essential to educate children of all genders about periods. By including boys and non-binary individuals in conversations about menstruation, you help promote empathy, understanding, and inclusivity.
Adolescents can be insensitive when they don’t understand– boys, like girls, crave knowledge about how the world works, and they need to be taught that periods are a healthy part of life and are critical to all of us creating children. With a little bit of information, anyone who does not menstruate can be a great period ally.
3. Promote Empathy and Respect
Teaching empathy and respect toward menstruating individuals is a critical aspect of menstrual education. By emphasizing these values, parents can help break down stigma and foster a supportive environment. Consider the following:
- Challenge Stereotypes: Discuss the harmful gender stereotypes surrounding periods. Emphasize that menstruation is a natural bodily process and should not define or limit anyone’s capabilities or worth.
- Empathy and Compassion: Teach children to be empathetic and understanding towards others. Promote an environment where menstruation is seen as normal and respected. Children do not readily understand that all people with a uterus will get periods; some teen boys do not recognize it is something their mothers and grandmothers get, a fact that can help in making them more understanding with others their age who do.
- Avoid Period Shaming: Discuss the importance of refraining from negative comments, teasing, or making jokes about periods. Blaming any behavior on the fact that someone is menstruating is never acceptable.
Practical Guidance on Menstrual Management
Equipping children with practical knowledge about menstrual management is crucial for their overall well-being. Here are some key points to consider when discussing menstrual health and hygiene:
- Menstrual Products: Educate your child about the available menstrual products such as pads, tampons, and menstrual cups. Explain how to use them safely and provide opportunities for them to explore their options. Do not assume that offering your child menstrual products will translate into how to use them. Consider starting by showing how a panty liner is a way to get ready for an oncoming period; they are perfectly safe to use at any time and can make young people more confident about knowing how to use pads when the time comes.
- Proper Hygiene Practices: Teach your child about the importance of maintaining good menstrual hygiene. Emphasize the need for regular changing of menstrual products to prevent infection, discomfort, and odor. Even when disposable products may seem unsoiled, they contain fluid and bacteria and must be changed every six hours, regardless of whether there is blood detectable. Show them how to dispose of used disposable products and explain the importance of proper hand-washing before and after bathroom use.
- Managing Symptoms: Discuss common menstrual symptoms such as cramps, bloating, and mood swings. Educate your child about the variety of coping mechanisms available, such as heat packs, exercise, and self-care practices like rest and relaxation. Encourage them to listen to their bodies and find what works best for them. Do a little research before passing along family stories about what not to do and eat; many ideas we pass along have come from myths that are shared generation after generation.
- Tracking and Preparedness: Introduce the concept of menstrual cycle tracking, emphasizing its benefits in predicting the onset of periods and managing any associated symptoms. Teach your child how to keep track of their periods and help them establish a routine for being prepared with necessary supplies.
- Build an emergency kit: Make a project of putting critical items for period management in a small bag that your child can carry in their school bag. It can be helpful to create several kits for lockers, purses, and any place they might be needed. Basic supplies should include pads, tampons, headache remedies, hand sanitizer, spare underwear, and a plastic bag for soiled underwear. A pair of basic, black leggings at the bottom of a backpack can be a lifesaver in a pinch.
- Promote Community Engagement
Period education extends beyond the parent-child relationship. Encouraging community engagement can help children understand that periods are a shared experience and reduce the sense of isolation. Consider the following approaches:
- Peer Support: Encourage your child to engage in conversations about periods with their friends, creating a supportive network where they can share experiences and seek advice. Normalize the idea that periods are something people go through together. Encourage them to speak to teachers, school nurses, and other adults if they need assistance.
- Involvement in Initiatives: Research local initiatives or organizations focused on menstrual health and hygiene. Encourage your child to participate in events, workshops, or campaigns aimed at breaking the stigma around periods and advocating for accessible menstrual health products. (We might know a bit about that at GHGP! We love working with young people who can reach out to us here!)
- Education in Schools: Advocate for comprehensive menstrual education in schools, ensuring that all students receive accurate information about periods, regardless of gender. Engage with teachers, school administrators, and parent-teacher associations to promote inclusive menstrual education policies.
By embracing open dialogue and empathy and providing practical knowledge, parents can play a crucial role in educating their children of all genders about periods and menstrual management. Breaking the silence surrounding periods helps foster a supportive environment, reduces stigma, and empowers young individuals to navigate this natural process with confidence.
Remember, the key lies in starting early, being honest, promoting inclusivity, and engaging with the wider community. If you need some more tips or want to practice walking through the conversation, we’re always here to help!