When you’re a mom, it’s likely you’ll have to talk to kids about certain topics a lot sooner than you’d like. Take your period: Whether it’s because your son saw you changing your pad or your daughter heard something about bloody underpants at school, there’s always a teachable moment around the corner.
How should you talk to your kids when they ask about menstruation?
As founder of HelloFlo, a women’s health company and author of HelloFlo: The Guide, Period, I’ve been asked this question a lot. In my experience, waiting to tell your daughter about menstruation after she gets her first period—or just not talking to your son about it at all—can lead to embarrassment and period-shaming. On the flip side, you don’t necessarily need to give a 4-year-old all the nitty-gritty details of how female reproductive anatomy works.
Where do you draw the line? Here’s what you need to know based on your children’s ages:
General body positivity is important at this age, but if your child sees you in the midst of dealing with your period—and let’s face it, there’s no such thing as privacy once you have a kid in the house—it’s okay to explain that once girls get a little older, around 12 years old, they have a monthly period which is when blood comes out of their vaginas. You can explain that it’s not like a boo-boo: It doesn’t hurt and, most importantly, it’s nothing to be concerned about.
When my daughter asked why I sometimes wore diapers, I explained it this way. When she persisted with more questions, I told her that women have eggs inside of them that help them have babies and each month, one of those eggs comes out. She got very excited at the thought that she would one day “lay eggs” like a chicken and that was the end of that conversation—until she brought it up again a few years later.
Early elementary school
Early elementary school is a great opportunity to start talking to your kids more generally about puberty and the changes that come about. At this stage, it’s helpful to look for small moments to chat—say, if a peer mentions puberty or periods at school or if you see someone on television mention menstruation.
An important note: Your kids will be aware at this point how you talk about your own period. Refrain from referring to it negatively, and be upfront about what’s happening. If cramps are keeping you from being able to play outside, for example, say that so that your kids understand.
Later elementary school
When your kids get closer to the late adolescent years of 9 to 11, they’ll probably start noticing changes to their own bodies. In addition to noting that that these shifts are completely normal, it’s also crucial to tell your kids that the changes happen to everyone at different times so they don’t judge where they are based on where their friends are. It’s also important that girls know that boys also go through puberty; it’s a fact of growing up.
Some girls start getting their periods in elementary school, so make sure your child, regardless of gender, knows not to shame or embarrass someone who has her period. Those first couple of months (and even years) of menstruation are filled with period-stained clothes and pads falling out of backpacks; young girls don’t need rude reminders that they’re experiencing a huge change that can come with painful side effects.
For girls, it’s also a great time to explain what to expect during their first period. For example, period blood may be brownish in color and look like a poop stain, which can throw many young women off. Getting cramps for the first time can be equally jarring, as many girls think it’s a really bad stomach ache. By preparing your daughter, stocking her up with pads and showing her how to use them, you can stave off some of those fears and show her that taking care of her body is important.
This also shows her that she can come to you and talk if anything is bothering her health-wise.
The most important thing I’ve found both as a mother and a women’s health advocate is that talking about periods (and puberty at large) is all about having smaller conversations over a longer stretch of time.
Giving your children the information they need is important, but it’s also crucial that they grow up not feeling ashamed of what’s going on with their bodies and know not to shame others.