The stigma surrounding menstruation has made it an incredibly secretive topic, one that’s been deemed best to discuss behind closed doors. Because it’s taboo, it’s no surprise that some parents may struggle to openly chat about periods with their own children.
HuffPost turned to sex education experts and researchers for advice on what to do ― and what not to do ― when talking to kids (yes, girls and boys) about periods. Check out their helpful tips below.
Introduce the topic before there are tons of questions
AMAZE is a collaboration between Answer From Rutgers University, YTH (Youth + Tech + Health) and Advocates for Youth that “takes the awkward out of sex ed” through animated and informative videos. It has created multiple videos about menstruation with a kid and teen audience in mind, making it pretty easy for parents to introduce the topic to their families. For adults looking for a way to explain the actual process of menstruation, the AMAZE video below gives a quick breakdown.
As demonstrated in the video, it’s crucial to use the correct terminology for body parts and processes and not sugarcoat what happens before, during and after someone is menstruating.
Nora Gelperin, director of sexuality education and training at Advocates for Youth, plays a major role in creating the videos for AMAZE, and she stressed the importance of making time to talk with kids about menstruation and puberty in general. It’s vital to do this before major changes happen, so parents aren’t left trying to answer a long list of questions.
“Puberty is not voluntary,” she told HuffPost. “It’s really important to talk about it early and often and not wait until your child comes to you with questions. Bring it up while you’re riding in the car or on the subway together.”
Gelperin said there are “thousands of teachable moments” to spark the discussion, whether it comes from the news, a movie or TV show, or just a trip to the grocery store.
“If you go down an aisle that has tampons and feminine hygiene supplies, you can ask, ‘You ever seen these things before?’ and go from there,” she said.
Don’t be afraid of the phrase “age-appropriate”
According to the Mayo Clinic, “menstruation typically begins at about age 12, but periods are possible as early as age 8.” Ideally, parents will talk to kids about periods before they or their friends start having them, but many think, “How early is too early?”
Bonnie J. Rough addresses this in her book Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids About Sex, Love, and Equality, which details the Dutch approach to sex education and sexuality that she experienced while living with her family in Amsterdam. She tackles parents’ fears of only sharing “age-appropriate” information about sex with their children with a guide from Rutgers, a center in the Netherlands that’s been around for 50 years and focuses on sexual and reproductive health and rights:
“According to a Rutgers guide on teaching young children about their bodies, toddlers and preschoolers ‘are not too young to talk about love and sex. In fact, this is a good age to talk about it. At this age a child feels very strongly bonded with their parents. He is sensitive to any information you give him. Furthermore, children are very curious. Make use of that. Don’t be afraid you’ll say too much: a child grasps only what they’re ready for.’”
Chicago-area sex ed teacher Kim Cavill told HuffPost her kids started asking questions related to periods when they were about 5 or 5½.
“They know that they’re welcome to ask any sort of question that they want,” she said, adding later, “In my house, we’ve been talking about this stuff in gradual levels of complexity.”
AMAZE offers an “age guide” on its site that separates its videos and lessons into two categories: content for everyone, which is appropriate for “all young people,” and content for and about teens, which is for kids 10 to 14. Its menstruation videos have been labeled for “everyone.”
You have more than one chance to get the conversation right
There are a handful of conversations parents have with their kids that can best be individually summed up as “the talk.” The “sex talk,” also known as a discussion about “the birds and the bees,” is a prime example. For many families, periods fall into this category, and the problem with building up the anticipation for this kind of chat is that it puts a lot of pressure on the parents and only adds to the stigma.
“A lot of parents think, ‘I have one shot to do this right’ or ‘I’m going to ruin them for life if I make a mistake,’” Gelperin said.
She encouraged parents to consider discussions about menstruation, puberty and other important topics as ongoing conversations. Make sure kids view them this way, too, so they’ll feel comfortable coming forward with questions.
“Let your kid unwrap [a menstrual product]. Let them be seen as often as the salt and pepper on the kitchen counter so they can be talked about or just accepted as everyday human life.”
– Bonnie J. Rough, author of "Beyond Birds and Bees"
Discussion is good, but active normalization is better
In Beyond Birds and Bees, Rough explains how comfortable the Dutch are when it comes to talking to kids about sex and sexuality, compared to the attitudes in the U.S.
“What really stood out to me during that year and a half were how open Dutch parents and preschool teachers and elementary school teachers were with children about bodies, relationships, love, reproduction, sexuality and sexual orientation,” she told HuffPost. “They had this really neat combination of comfort with nudity and acceptance of bodies together with this straightforward use of terminology of every body part, including genitalia.”
When asked for advice that she’d give to parents looking to chat about periods with their children, she suggested to also be open and “leave those menstrual products laying around the house.”
“Let your kid unwrap one. Let them be seen as often as the salt and pepper on the kitchen counter so they can be talked about or just accepted as everyday human life,” she said.
It’s also crucial that both girls and boys take part in these discussions and learn about this process together.
“We need to have as many lessons as we can with boys and girls in the same room,” Rough said. “That’s what they offer in the Netherlands in schools, and I think it’s a best practice at home.”
Don’t be afraid of a hands-on approach
Taking Rough’s suggestion to keep products visible a step further, Cavill encouraged parents to give their kids a closer look at various period products, such as pads, liners, tampons and menstrual cups.
“There’s no reason why you can’t bring those things out and just demonstrate how they work with a cup of water and food coloring if you have it,” she said.
She suggested showing how much liquid a tampon can absorb or a menstrual cup can hold. Fight the discomfort you might feel while demonstrating the products. In many cases, kids aren’t even aware of period stigma yet.
“Remember that young children don’t naturally bring the sort of shame that’s usually brought by the adult,” Cavill said. “It’s not natural for a child to see something like this with a similar function and get embarrassed.”
Of course, kids don’t get their information about periods only at home. Rough explained the importance of schools keeping bathrooms clean and stocked with menstrual products and recognizing that not everyone with a period identifies as a woman.
And it’s especially important to not only educate kids about the actual menstruation process but the cultural aspects of periods as well.
“This is not just about hygiene,” Rough said. “It’s also talking about the emotions and stigmas around it and trying to break down the taboo.”
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