I had questions. Some that I was brave enough to ask other women. And some that I didn't ask, because of the embarrassment and shyness. But over the years, I slowly started to gain more knowledge about menstrual health. I found answers to some of my questions, some half complete. And now, I've finally come to understand my body and my menstrual cycles.
As a daughter who never had the 'period talk' with my mom, looking back, there are so many things I wish I had known during my teens. That's not to say that I didn't know much back then - my sisters taught me the basics, and school taught me the science behind it! And that's all there was to it.
These days, kids have an advantage. In relative comfort, one can look up information about menstruation online. But that doesn't mean that we can entirely skip this important discussion with our children. Or just touch upon it lightly. So, how can we better educate girls and involve boys in discussions on periods? Here are ten simple steps to guide your way!
1. START EARLY, WITH SMALL, TEACHABLE MOMENTS
Many parents are concerned about when to have 'the' period talk. The average age when girls start menstruating is at 12 yrs old, but this doesn't mean that they can't reach puberty earlier. That's why it's best to start to initiate conversations about menstruation before the age of 10.
Life gives us many teachable moments, so take advantage of these opportunities to start to teach children about menstruation - for example, when you come across the menstrual products aisle at a grocery store, briefly explain what they are.
Introduce small bits of information at a time; so that when the time comes for a proper period talk, they'll grasp the concept with ease. The sooner we start to normalise this conversation with our children, the less taboo the topic will become.
II. BE HONEST, AND BE PREPARED
Prepare yourself before you have these conversations. Jot down a few notes on how you'll start the conversation, what points to discuss in detail, and how to navigate the talk in the simplest of terms. Doing so will help you keep your opinions about menstruation in check - it's vital to avoid any biases or personal views. If not, your child may adopt these biases, like negative period experiences or cultural taboos.
Remember, you don't have to teach everything at once, but don't shy away from answers either. Answer every question your child asks honestly. If needed, use diagrams or watch videos together.
III. BE POSITIVE, ENCOURAGE AN OPEN LINE OF COMMUNICATION
Stay cautious about exaggerating negative period experiences. Everyone has a different experience with menstruation; your daughter may have an effortless transition into puberty.
Instead, focus on the positives, such as fertility. Communicate what it means to have a healthy body that is working well and explain that each person will have a different menstrual experience because of genes, hormones, and environmental factors.
Demystify the perceived limitations of menstruation. Emphasise that having a period shouldn't limit daily activities. It is not gross or creepy, but very natural; this is simply how the female body works. Highlight that having a period is not an embarrassment.
Motivate your daughter to ask questions, even if she finds it embarrassing. When answering questions, adopt an open stance, one that's non-judgmental and understanding.
IV. EXPLORE DIFFERENT PERIOD PRODUCTS AND EXPLAIN HOW THEY WORK
There are so many different kinds of period products available, even if you've decided to stick with just the one that's your favourite. Introduce your daughter to period products available to your family. Explain the pros and cons of using each, and compare them with each other.
At the end, allow your daughter to choose the period product she is comfortable with. When she first starts menstruating, let her experiment with period products. With some trial and error, she'll eventually find a product that suits her menstrual flow and comfort.
Go for a period kit monthly subscription! These cute comfort boxes contain lots of supportive items you might need during your period. The kit may include relaxing teas, essential oils, delicious snacks, hot water bottles and so on.
Also, help her assemble an emergency period kit for her school bag. The emergency kit can include an extra pair of pants, underwear, period products, wipes, or anything else that you think will be helpful when a girl starts her period in school. The kit could also come in handy for a friend or classmate.
V. DISCUSS BLOOD, PAIN, AND DISCHARGE
A lot of kids think blood is scary. Try to reduce this type of fear by explaining how menstrual flow occurs, and that blood does not gush out at once. Even though it may seem like a lot of blood is lost during a period, it's actually only about three tablespoons.
Another fear could be experiencing period pain. Period pain is subjective, and every girl will have a different experience. Some may not feel it all, and others may find it burdensome. Let your child know that she can and should talk about her period pain with you. Help her manage it. And if the pain becomes overwhelming, let her know that she has the option to take a day off from chores or school.
In these conversations, one may forget an essential component of the female reproductive cycle; discharge. Explain the innocuous nature of menstrual discharge, when and how it occurs, and how to manage it.
VI. LEAKS AND SURPRISES
Periods are unpredictable at first. They don't have a fixed schedule and can arrive abruptly. Talk about the untimeliness of periods and how to handle these surprises properly. Guide your daughter on how to create a makeshift pad out of toilet paper in case of an emergency.
Explain that blood leaking onto clothes and furniture is very common. It takes a while to adjust to period products, and menstrual flow fluctuates too. Even older women struggle with menstrual leaks. Tell her that blood stains from clothes or furniture can be effectively dealt with.
VII. DISCUSS MENSTRUAL DISORDERS
This part of the discussion isn't urgent, but it is necessary after your daughter has a better grasp of the menstrual cycle. Awareness is key to effectively dealing with a menstrual disorder, thus the need for early discussions. Address the most common ones, how they present themselves, and what the risk factors are. Involve a gynaecologist in this discussion; so that the doctor can address any questions your daughter may have.
VIII. TALK ABOUT PREMENSTRUAL SYNDROME (PMS)
PMS symptoms can be covert and difficult to identify. Explain to her that these symptoms may start 2 weeks before the cycle because of the fluctuations in hormone levels. The symptoms vary greatly, and at times one may experience just behavioural symptoms of PMS. Explain the importance of maintaining mental health during the menstrual cycle. Encourage her to share her feelings with you, even if she isn't able to work them out herself.
IX. TEACH MENSTRUAL HYGIENE AND ITS IMPORTANCE
Menstrual hygiene plays a vital part in maintaining menstrual health. Demonstrate how to dispose of period products properly. Not because one has to hide the fact that they are menstruating, but because this is how hygiene works.
Regular washing and bathing also promote good menstrual hygiene. Another crucial point is that interior cleansing or douching is not necessary. The vagina is a self-cleaning muscular tissue; it does not need scented soaps or vaginal washes. Douching can result in infections or vaginal irritation. Instead, use water and unscented soap to clean exterior areas (the vulva).
X. MAKE SURE TO INVOLVE BOYS TOO
A father can be involved in period discussions too. Not only will this teach your daughter that this is not something to hide from the opposite sex, but it may also foster a stronger bond between father and daughter.
These period discussions shouldn't just educate your daughters, some can also involve your sons. Parents should proactively educate their sons about the natural processes of a female body. By educating boys, we can help change attitudes towards menstruation. And by encouraging conversations about menstruation and menstrual equality, we raise empathetic young men.