I don’t remember much about my first menstruation, beyond the fact that I wasn’t sure if I was menstruating or dying.
I was 13 by that point, so I already knew that periods were a thing. School had prepared us for that much, at least. But I suspected that vaginas could bleed for other reasons, too. Terrifying reasons. How was I to know whether the blood staining my underpants was the right kind of blood? The blood that was meant to induct me into that community of people who menstruate?
Now, I’m the mother of a 6-year-old, and I know that I cannot rely on the school system to prepare my daughter for everything it means to be a human in this world. To live in a body. I know that, whatever school districts are doing, parents need to take an active role in their child’s sexuality education, from birth on.
And yes, this can be difficult. Many of us didn’t grow up with the most awesome sex ed experiences, and there are large gaps in our knowledge—not to mention fact that tampons and other period products aren’t available to all. Some of us have grown up having internalized the idea that our sexuality is a taboo topic, perhaps because of our cultural or our faith background. But I assure you: You can still prepare your child for this time in their life in a way that is hopefully painless for the both of you.
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So, how do we handle periods?
Don’t wait too long to introduce the topic
I experienced my first menses at 13, but some kids have their first period by age 8. So be warned that these conversations may have to start sooner than you think.
“Ideally, you want to talk to your kids about [menstruation] before they or their friends are bleeding,” said Melissa Pintor Carnagey, a sexuality educator and the founder of Sex Positive Families, a resource for families to help raise children through a shame-free approach. “You want them to have a heads up.”
No one wants to be blindsided by blood in their panties. With children, especially, the mind can go to all sorts of wild places.
Know that you’re always sending messages, even if you’re not saying a word
You may not talk to your kids about periods for any number of reasons. You may worry it will be uncomfortable or awkward.
You may feel they don’t have enough knowledge to speak about it with any level of confidence. you may assume that the schools will handle it.
But even when we don’t speak directly about menstruation, we are still inadvertently sending some pretty clear messages.
Carnagey pointed out that the silence that often exists around this natural bodily process speaks volumes. If there are menstruating people in the house and they’re hiding period products—or whispering about cramps and heavy bleeding, or furtively tossing out their underwear, or smuggling their bedsheets into the laundry room when they leak through their pads—kids will come to believe that menstruation is something of which they should be ashamed.
Meanwhile, open conversations about menstruation, and about how it’s affecting us and how it can manifest in other bodies, can have a positive impact on things like our children’s future intimate relationships and their levels of body confidence.
Look for teachable moments
How do you initiate these conversations? Carnagey says that while open discussions are good, actively normalizing periods is even better. A large part of their job involves locating those opportunities for normalization.
Like those moments when your child follows you into the bathroom and asks about your pad or your tampon. Or when commercials pop up on TV for period products. Or when you travel down the convenience store aisle devoted to “feminine hygiene products.”
“When they grab and play with menstrual products, do you stop them?” Carnagey said. “Are you talking about it, or are you hoping it just disappears? Are you imposing shame and avoidance and silence around these things, or do you recognize them as teachable moments?”
Resist falling back on fear-based language
Puberty is often spoken of as that time in life when changes happen—changes kids can find scary or strange. And for a long time, I didn’t know of any other way to speak about periods. Then I saw sexuality educator Al Vernacchio present a different educational framework, one in which he likens these bodily changes to superpowers. I was inspired.
When I mentioned this to Carnagey, she got excited. “I love talking about cervical mucus and vaginal discharge and how the body can do super powerful things,” they said. “I love just framing bodies in general as these amazing groups of organs and systems that are operating all day and night to keep us alive. It’s all about framing it from a strengths-based, empowering place.”
Of course, periods aren’t always pleasant for those involved. For me, I always experienced bloating, heavy bleeding, and debilitating cramps (among other things). Carnagey acknowledges that, yes, periods can suck, but using a positive framework doesn’t mean ignoring that.
“There are elements of predictability and unpredictability,” Carnagey said. They explained that the key is in making sure your child has all of the information and support they need so, as they begin to experience the various symptoms of menstruation, they know they’re not alone and they have the language to talk about it.
Carnagey recommends talking about the various things one might experience while menstruating, laying out what they can expect and what to do next. “It’s all about normalizing the diversity of experiences of the body,” they said.
Don’t stop with your daughters
Carnagey emphasizes that menstruation is not about gender—it’s about body parts.
“If we have a society where everyone is educated about this process that some bodies can experience,” they said, “it opens people’s minds and they then have the ability and the capacity to support others and to make decisions and rules and laws that make sense for people who menstruate.”
But even more than that, Carnagey insists that “we have to recognize that we are humans who have these experiences with our bodies, and we are also in community with other humans having these experiences, and it is to our benefit to know about what those experiences are and to foster empathy and understanding and support and self-awareness.”
You don’t have to know everything
“You’re not a bad parent if you feel like this is hard,” Carnagey said. “It’s not your fault. Our society has created so many barriers to the education we deserved. It’s not your job to have all the answers. It’s just your job to create that space.”
If you’re looking for additional resources you can use to facilitate these conversations, check these out:
- Vaginas and Periods 101, by Christian Hoeger and Kristen Lilla, is a pop-up book meant to normalize vaginas and menstruation.
- The Period Game, a board game with a spinning ovary (!), teaches kids about menstruation in a fun and engaging way.
Six Minute Sex Ed is a podcast hosted by sex educator Kim Cavill, and episode 18, “Let’s Talk About Periods,” is focused on menstruation.
- Amaze is a website featuring animated videos on sex, relationships, and the body.
- Sex Positive Talks to Have With Kids is a book by Melissa Pintor Carnagey, sex educator and founder of Sex Positive Families.
- Go With the Flow, by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann, is a fun graphic novel about a group of friends who go up against a high school administration that’s squeamish about the fact that half of their student population menstruates.
Good luck out there. Your kids need this.