It’s a tale as old as time. Around half of adolescents going through puberty will get their period.
In high-income countries, an adolescent’s first period (known as “menarche”) happens on average between 10 and 14 years of age, with most occurring between 12 and 13 years.
Why then does this extremely common event still sometimes create shock, awkwardness, or distress to parents and young people alike? In a world where gender equality and gender diversity are increasingly acknowledged and understood, it’s time to end period stigma – and where better to start than at home?
Questions, so many questions
In an analysis of 1,000 questions emailed to me when I was writing Dolly magazine’s Dolly Doctor column in 2004, questions about periods made up over 13% of all possible questions and topics. Typical questions included:
- I’m 15 and haven’t gotten my periods yet. My sister who is two years younger then me has got hers. Is there something wrong with me?
- Every time i get my period it comes at different times (dates) and they are so confusing – one day it’s heavy then it’s gone for two days, and comes back for another four. It is really annoying and it’s sometimes heavy and sometimes light, and it always leaks onto my bed, but I’m too scared to use tampons. What can I use to stop it leaking?
- Is having really bad period pains “normal?” But these are not normal period pains, these are ones where I cannot get out of bed and I go through four pads a day. Is this bad or is it normal?
- I’m confused; where do you put the tampon in? And when you have sex, is that the same hole? Please help.
The questions continue today. A 2021 survey of more than 4,200 Australian 13- to 25-year-old girls and women found only around one third asked their mothers for advice about menstruation and menstrual pain. Less than a third consulted a doctor. Only around one in five learned from school about whether their experiences of menstruation were normal and about half turned to the internet for information and advice.
The real dangers of not talking about periods
Menstrual stigma plays a large part in menstrual illiteracy and can have very real and harmful consequences for adolescents. These include exclusion from school, child marriage (because periods are considered a sign of sexual maturity), or loss of dignity for displaced people.
This problem is not confined to low- and middle-income countries. Attitudes to menstruation remain problematic in high-income countries too, where researchers have found menstrual pain is widely normalized and self-managed. This can thwart early detection of conditions including endometriosis.
The cultural meanings of menstruation and menarche can also contribute to distress and dysphoria among trans boys and non-binary adolescents.
5 tips for first period support
1. Focus on what to expect
The first period can be light and fleeting – a few painless brown-black streaks, rather than an obvious flow of blood lasting days. Focus on what your child might expect that FIRST time, and for a short time afterwards.
The menstrual cycle does not fully mature after menarche for one to two years, and periods can be irregular throughout that time. This doesn’t need to be a concern.
Tell them a period might feel a bit like wetting their pants, it might be painless, or there might be cramps or low back pain.
2. Check out all the period products on offer together
Sit down and show your child period products that might be in the home already.
Explain how to dispose of non-reusable used products and how to wash reusable products. Reassure them that tampons (and cups) are safe to use. Adolescents who swim, play sport, dance, do gymnastics, or other activities may want to learn to use tampons or cups as soon as they get their first period.
If there are none, there is no harm in buying a packet of disposable pads, a pair of period undies, and perhaps a box of mini tampons to look at, along with website images of other options like reusable pads and menstrual cups (which can be a bigger investment).
3. Talk through how to manage tricky period situations
Even though the first (or first few) periods can be painless, they aren’t always. Explain most period pain can be managed effectively. Over-the-counter period pain tablets work best if taken at the first hint of a period.
Other tricky situations might involve leaks, or being caught without period supplies when at school, out and about, or at sleepovers. If your child moves between homes, ask about how they manage periods at the other home and whether they want your help talking with the other parent.
4. Let them know about private and confidential help available
If your child does have any menstrual problems, there are effective ways to manage them that might involve medical assessment or intervention.
The era of “normalizing” period pain, heavy bleeding, and premenstrual syndrome should be long gone. Each young person has the right to health, no matter what! If your child experiences unease or distress related to gender and periods, help them source support.
5. Make a period toolkit together
A period toolkit ideally consists of information and practical stuff.
It’s also good to prepare a handy little case or pouch containing:
- period pads or undies (or their preferred product)
- spare undies
- a couple of period pain tablets
The awkwardness of adolescence will likely resonate with most of us. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if something as commonplace as getting one’s first period was not so tainted with stigma, shame, or embarrassment?
Setting up good communication early will help ease young people into this stage of life and also create a dynamic where they can raise concerns with you along the way. – The Conversation|Rappler.com
Melissa Kang is an Associate Professor, University of Sydney.