No matter whether a parent menstruates or not, it is important to be prepared for this major moment in your child’s development. “The Talk” doesn’t have to be scary. In this Verywell Family article, Mindpath Health’s Elisabeth Netherton, MD discusses how having this conversation can be a moment of genuine connection and love.
The period talk. Perhaps one of the most written about and fraught coming-of-age moments, this important conversation allows parents to help their child understand what will happen to their bodies, and how to manage this biological function for the next several decades.
But what happens when a parent who doesn’t menstruate is tasked with the responsibility of having this talk with their child? We learned more about how non-menstruating parents can feel empowered and how to make this conversation go smoothly.
Why the period talk matters
Every month, 1.8 billion people around the world menstruate. A portion of those are experiencing their period for the first time, also known as menarche, which occurs between the ages of 12 and 14. Those initial periods can bring a lot of emotions, which might range from excitement and anticipation to shame and confusion. However, those overwhelming feelings can be alleviated through open communication with a safe and trusted caregiver ahead of time.
Elisabeth Netherton, MD, psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Mindpath Health, says that preparing children for all the physical changes of puberty is necessary for their mental health.
“Menstruation can be frightening or scary when children don’t know what to expect, and it’s important that we’re able to provide them with information so they know what will happen, why it occurs, and how to navigate it,” Dr. Netherton explains.
Parents must help children understand that having a period is a normal part of their lives, especially if they don’t have a caregiver who menstruates themselves. Stephanie Hack, MD, MPH, FACOG, an OB/GYN, adds that menstruation is simply a part of life, and children with uteruses need to be prepared for the physical realities of eventually having a period.
Wendy Goodall-McDonald, MD, an OB/GYN, explains that while society has often made discussions about periods taboo, parents should work against this societal stigma.
In the end, speaking to our children about this fundamental shift is all about empowering them within their bodies. “One of our main objectives in conversations with our children about puberty is to provide them with the information necessary to care for their bodies with increasing autonomy,” Dr. Netherton says.
What’s commonly covered in “the talk?”
Menstruation is a biological process, but it can be challenging to explain to someone for the first time. The following topics are a place to start when discussing periods with a young person who will eventually menstruate themselves.
What is a period?
Periods are a natural part of life for people with a uterus. “The ‘period’ is also known as menstruation. It is the part [of the menstrual cycle] when a person experiences bleeding and shedding of the uterine lining,” Dr. Goodall-McDonald explains.
How do periods work?
The menstrual cycle occurs in four parts. The follicular phase is when the ovary prepares to release an egg, and the uterus builds a lining as a place to hold the egg. Ovulation is when the egg is released from the ovary and travels into the fallopian tube. The luteal phase is when the uterus prepares to nurture a fertilized egg. However, if the egg is not fertilized, it leaves the uterus. Menstruation is when the uterus sheds its lining and gets ready to repeat the cycle.
Side effects of periods
Due to the changes in hormone levels leading up to a period, it may be accompanied by water retention (bloating), feeling tired, breast tenderness, breakouts, and changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or gas.
Options for period products
Having periods also means caring for the body and using products to help with bleeding. There are several options available, including disposable or reusable items.
Period underwear, which absorbs blood flow much like a pad, and menstrual cups, which are inserted in the vagina and can be worn for up to twelve hours, are reusable options. Pads, which adhere to the inside of underwear and are disposable, as well as tampons, which are inserted inside the vagina to absorb blood flow, are disposable.
Dr. Hack recommends NSAIDs (like aspirin and ibuprofen) and heating pads if your child experiences discomfort from cramping or bloating.
How to prepare for your child’s questions
Let’s face it: kids will always have questions. It’s important to meet their curiosity with genuine care—but also by being accurate about what’s going on in their bodies.
“Think about using scientifically accurate, age-appropriate language, while also being clear and concise,” Dr. Netherton says. “Using vague language also conveys that periods shouldn’t be talked about directly or are in some way shameful—this is the opposite of what we’re wanting to convey.”