Periods are a fact of life for billions of people around the world, yet menstruation stigma is rampant — and it runs deep.
One poll found that nearly 60% of women feel embarrassed when they menstruate, simply because they’re menstruating. And public health groups warn that period shaming, along with limited access to necessary menstrual products, has significant physical and mental health effects on girls around the globe.
Of course, breaking down deep, centuries-old taboos is not something individual parents can do entirely on their own. But caregivers do play a critical role in teaching children about periods, and the conversations they have can absolutely chip away at the shame and secrecy that still surrounds menstruation in 2021.
Here are some of the common missteps parents and other caregivers take, and some expert-backed advice for what to do instead.
Common mistake #1: Thinking period talks are only for girls and should be led by women
Explaining menstruation isn’t just important for girls; boys should absolutely be a part of these conversations.
“You want to give context for menstruation for both ‘menstruators’ and ‘non- mentruators,’” said Kate Barker Swindell, service and operations manager for the nonprofit Period. “This is not something that is weird, or abnormal or something we have to hide.”
Similarly, women shouldn’t be the only trusted caregivers to lead or contribute to period-related conversations. Men should participate, too.
“This isn’t just a mom talk,” said Ohio-based sex educator Lydia Bowers. “For one, not everyone has a mom at home. But also, about half the people in the world have periods. So it’s really a humanity talk.”
Common mistake #2: Waiting too long
Experts are loath to give specific ages at which parents should be having talks with their children about periods (and about puberty in general), but they tend to agree: If you wait until a child has begun menstruating, you’ve waited too long.
And parents and caregivers should be aware that puberty is starting earlier than before. Though everyone develops on their own timeline, puberty generally begins by age 10 or 11 in girls, though some may get their period when they’re as young as 8.
“You don’t want someone to get caught off guard,” Bowers said. Some schools do offer menstruation education, but researchers who’ve tried to measure how comprehensive it tends to be and when it’s offered warn it’s “significantly lacking.”
Also, parents should be aware that not talking about periods is a form of communication in its own way.
“You’re still sending a message,” said Bowers. And that message, however unintentional, is that periods are somehow taboo.
“This isn’t just a mom talk. … About half the people in the world have periods. So it’s really a humanity talk.”
– Lydia Bowers
Common mistake #3: Hiding menstruation
“When you’ve got preschoolers, there’s a lot of being barged in on in the bathroom in the middle of changing a pad or tampon and the kid going, ‘What’s that?’” Bowers chuckled. “Even in those moments, taking the time to matter of factly say, ‘Well, this is a period. Some adults have these a few days a month. It doesn’t hurt; it’s just what some bodies do.’”
Another organic way into these types of conversations can be simply leaving pads, tampons, or other menstruation products out in the open rather than hiding them completely out of sight.
“Many children do have a parent or caregiver or older sibling or somebody at home who menstruates, so making sure that whatever menstrual supplies are being used are not something that have to be hidden away,” Bowers said.
She likened it to toilet paper, which families don’t generally tuck away somewhere out of sight in between uses.
Some parents and caregivers may unintentionally “hide” menstruation through euphemisms, which are widespread. One estimate found there were more than 5,000 different euphemisms around the world, from “I have my things” to, ahem, “bad luck.”
“We gloss over when we say things like, ‘You have a flow.’ But what is a flow? What does it look like? It’s actually blood, it’s uterine lining, it comes out of your vagina. Use words that actually really connect it to the bodily processes,” said Swindell.
Common mistake #4: Waiting to start having conversations until parents feel totally comfortable and fully informed
“So many of us grew up with, if not period shame, the ingrained idea that it’s not polite to talk about periods, that you don’t mention this,” Bowers said.
“Recognizing that we might still feel those feelings of discomfort is important,” she added. “It’s OK to feel that!”
Bowers urged parents to take a bit of time to simply note their own discomfort, and consider the kinds of messages they received in childhood. She also noted that it can be really powerful to simply tell kids (particularly slightly older kids) that you didn’t have these types of conversations growing up, and that you’re still not necessarily fully comfortable.
“You can say something like, ‘This makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but I want you to grow up feeling more comfortable about this,’” Bowers suggested.
Likewise, parents should not feel like they have to have all the answers as they guide conversations with their children. Simply telling children that you will look up questions together can be a powerful place to start, and places like the American Academy of Pediatrics website for parents or Amaze.org can be helpful resources.
But also, parents and caregivers will stumble when it comes to these conversations. They will get things wrong. That’s not just OK; it’s really universal.
“This is just a warm up for the larger conversations you’re going to be having as a parent,” Swindell said. “So trying to get comfortable with things that may or may not be perceived as uncomfortable is important.”