Why Preparing Your Teen for Their First Period is Protective to Them
Adolescence is a time of intense emotional, social, and behavioral development. Among these changes is the process of self-discovery, during which adolescents are actively working to answer fundamental questions including, “Who am I?” and “Am I normal?” Adolescence is also a time of significant physical development. Often referred to as puberty, these physical changes include the body’s potential to start having a period. This is a major developmental milestone that often coincides with a teen’s process of self-discovery. Despite this being a normal developmental process, too many people discuss periods as though they are gross, dirty, or shameful. And since most education about periods occurs within the family, we are calling on you to help shift this conversation.
Teach Pride When it Comes to Periods
When we teach young people to hide or conceal their periods, we imply that there is something shameful about their bodies. When we use terms like “sanitary” or “hygiene” to describe period products, we imply that periods are unsanitary or unhygienic. Saying the word period isn’t a dirty word. This thought process begs the question – how can we, as parents or caring adults, expect and encourage our youth to launch into this process of self-discovery and identity development if we teach them to be ashamed of their bodies?
Given that the physical changes of puberty and identity formation are often happening at the same time, it is not hard to see how so much of our sense of self is intimately tied to our physical bodies. Body positivity is not only about loving our bodies regardless of shape and size. To be truly body positive, we need to focus on what the body does rather than how it looks. We must teach young people to accept and appreciate all their body can achieve. Teaching young people to be proud of their body’s potential is an essential step in helping them to recognize their potential in this world.
Our goal is for you, the parent, to model strength and stability during this time of rapid change. Your child will likely look to you for guidance and in so doing, entrust you with the power to shape their thoughts early on about the link between their physical body and its relationship to their sense of self, confidence, and identity.
Understand Menstrual or Period Inequity
Thinking about human needs, physical needs must be satisfied before individuals can attend to higher needs, such as self-esteem and identity. Physical needs include the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Access to items like toilet paper or menstrual products is equally crucial to fulfilling these needs. When young people cannot manage their periods with dignity, they cannot focus on higher needs such as identity development.
Several barriers prevent young people from managing their periods with dignity. Inequities exist between people who do and do not have periods and among people who have periods. For example, a young person may have a harder time going to school or work while on their period compared to a classmate or coworker who does not have periods. That same young person who is on their period might have an easier time than someone else who struggles to afford period products. Regardless, inequities for those young people who have periods can lead to toxic levels of stress that have the potential to affect their bodies, behaviors, and developing brains.
Create Conversation Starters
“You are almost at the age where you will start to have a period. I would love to talk about what that is and what to expect.”
Preparing your child for their first period is an important responsibility for parents. Lack of information about periods and misinformation can increase the chance for stigma and negative expectations. Accurate preparation may lead to more positive experiences. It is important that this conversation starts before your child has their first period. One typically has their first period around two years after they begin to notice breast growth. This makes breast growth a great marker for parents to introduce this topic. Teach your children that periods are a natural process, and signal good health. Preparing your children with practical information acts as a form of protection for when they experience changes in their bodies.
“Your period is a marker of healthy development and can bring about different emotions for people your age. How do you feel about having your first period?”
Using neutral language when it comes to talking about periods and asking your child how they feel can help guide the conversation. Language that is too negative can potentially send the wrong message about periods. Language that is too positive, however, may also backfire. For example, congratulating or celebrating a first period may make the young person feel like the more uncomfortable feelings they are having are abnormal.
Adults should model body positivity but also recognize that young people might not love their bodies all of the time – particularly, when they feel pain or discomfort. When using language like “appreciation,” focus on what the body is able to achieve and not how it looks or feels, preventing the focus from being on negative side effects.
“Just like walking or talking, your period is another sign that you are getting older.”
Using neutral language can also be important in discussing what a period means for a young person. Parents should be careful about using terminology like “you are a woman now” or “you are becoming a woman.” Young people may misinterpret this as implying they should act like adults or that their childhood is over. For other teens, they do not understand why they are now considered a woman but still treated like a younger child, when for example, they still have a curfew or aren’t allowed to wear make-up. While this may seem like a minor change in the words you use, this can prevent a potentially confusing message for a young person already confused by their changing bodies!
“A period may feel different to different people. You may experience different feelings than some of your friends. All of that is normal. However, if you think your period is so heavy or painful that it is interfering with daily activities like school or work, let me know. We can speak to a doctor about ways to help.”
Sometimes using the term normal can send confusing messages about what to expect. Say a young person has painful periods. For a parent to say, “It is normal for periods to be painful,” is very different from saying, “it can be normal for periods to be painful, and you have options so that it does not interfere with you living your life.” Send the message that your young person is not alone in having painful periods (i.e., this is something many people experience), and you do not have to live with painful periods every month.
Take Home Points
Take the messages shared here and make them your own. Adapt them to your child and your family. Be intentional about the messages you send your child about their periods. They will often mimic the feelings you share. Use neutral language and share practical knowledge, and send a message of appreciation for the body and all that it can accomplish! Your love and messages will help you and your teen be proud of the milestone they are experiencing.
This article was written by Shelby Davies, MD. Dr. Davies is a faculty member in the Division of Adolescent Medicine and at PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Her research was completed as a trainee in the Leadership Education in Adolescent Health Program.