A Positive Approach to Menarche and Menstruation

Topic:   Menarche and Menstruation (MP3, 8MB)  
Recorded by:   Karol Maybury     
Length:   8 minutes, 32 seconds 

This month's podcast is focused on adolescent girls and the enigmatic topic of menstruation: in particular, we'll be looking at how to best help girls prepare and acclimate to this powerful, life-changing experience. While I use the term “mother” frequently in this podcast, for many girls, the parent they may confide in may be another mother figure, or their father or other male parental figure.

Loulan and Worthen, authors of the excellent book “Period.: A Girl's Guide” wisely advise a parent to introduce the topic of periods before their daughter experiences her first one. In my preparation for this podcast I learned their first menses surprised a significant minority of women. Since the average age of first menstruation is 12, parental discussions should be timed to start prior to her first visit from ‘Aunt Flo.'

Loulan and Worthen suggest one way to break the ice: saying: “You know, when I was ten I started menstruating. I don't think we've ever even talked about getting your period.” You might talk to your daughter during a car ride, a TV commercial, or while making dinner. They say not to expect much on this first go-around, and to move on to other topics unless your child indicates she'd like to hear more. Check in a few weeks later, with a book, or if a natural cue comes up, such as when watching television together.

Here are some other ideas:

  1. Leave a good book or two around (in her room, or on a bookshelf she has access to) for her to explore on the topic of puberty. There are some suggestions at the end of this newsletter.
  2. Create a space where she can communicate with you, if she wants (but don't be surprised if she doesn't initiate it). I'm a longtime fan of a journal just-between-parent and child where kids can write down questions or concerns that they have and you can respond with a note. Text messaging or on-line chatting can also reduce the pressure of a face-to-face talk.
  3. Brainstorm with her about how she'd like to mark the event, if at all. Her favorite meal or dessert? A mom/daughter pedicure? (Some parents have made a symbolic gesture of allowing their daughter to finally get pierced ears, or perhaps a small piece of jewelry to mark the event).
  4. Loulan and Worthen also suggest: Have supplies on-hand before the event. (If you share custody with another parent, prepare to have sanitary supplies there, too.). Another good idea: Having a discrete pouch with a pad or two for her to tuck in her backpack in case she (or a friend) gets her first period at school. Let her know that the school nurse is another option if she gets caught without something on-hand. Dark clothing on the first few days of her period make many girls feel more secure.
  5. Loulan and Worthen also suggest: When talking about menstruation, keep the tone upbeat and share your own experiences or uncertainty when you were a preteen or teen. Try to include at least one or two positive aspects of menstruation. This parental approach—finding the positive about menstruation-- while rare, was mentioned repeatedly by women who recall their discussions with their mothers as the most reassuring.

It may be hard to think of the positives, but fertility expert Toni Weschler tells a story of how one girls' mom responded when her daughter complained about the cramps and irritation of getting her period. Her mother listened sympathetically and mentioned to her dubious daughter that she felt feminine during her period. The mom told her daughter that while having to deal with menstrual flow and cramps has its drawbacks, she thought of it as a special secret that gave her confidence in her body and its capabilities and uniqueness. What I like about this mom's type of response: she is empathetic, realistic and optimistic. Most importantly, this parental balancing act was consistent with women's healthy attitude about menstruation.

Ayse Uskul's 2004 study about menarche reinforces this. Dr. Uskul interviewed women from 18 different cultures' about their responses to their first period. One commonality across all cultures: a girl's mother's response to her daughter's first menstrual cycle has a profound effect on the experience. Very few women reported any type of celebration or ritual as a part of their experience, and instead secrecy, and managing hygiene products, were the most common components marking the start of a girl's menstrual cycle. This got me to thinking: is there a way around the disparaging attitudes that focus on the discomfort, inconvenience, and shame of menstruation? Perhaps letting your daughter know some facts about menstruation that she may be curious about: such as: the average amount of blood lost during each period: only 4 tablespoons!

Just as I was devising this newsletter, the website A Mighty Girl (a resource for books, videos, clothing, and other gear for feminist parents) posted a link to the viral video “Camp Gyno” which was a campy (!) upending of the culture of shame and silence around a girl's first menstrual period. Check it out first, but you might think about sharing it with your daughter to break the ice. I liked the humor and humanity of it.

One more aspect of menstruation that you might want to know about ahead of time: there are, believe it or not, some physical and mental health benefits of menstruation. Namely, menstruation is a reminder of women's amazing capacity to bring forth life. Research shows that many women report feeling more creative and more in-tune with their womanliness during menstruation. Not to mention, we burn a few more calories during the work our bodies are doing during menstruation. The optimist in me wonders if this is nature's way of encouraging a brownie-baking extravaganza between a girl and a parent! Another way to keep-it-positive: Some parents have successfully put together a Welcome to Womanhood Basket that might include chocolate, a heating pad, hygiene supplies and perhaps a good book on the topic (or a novel from her favorite author), if she doesn't already have one.

Here are some other suggestions for talking about menstruation:

  • Recount your own experiences with uncertainty about getting your first period.
  • Give a book or two to your daughter that she can refer to on her own as questions come up when you may not be immediately accessible.
  • Think about a girl's ideal menarche experience (or, perhaps how you'd like your daughter's experience to be different – better-- than your own).
  • I personally think a theme of lack of shame, comfort with asking questions, is about as good as it can get. Think concretely about how you can make that happen for her.
  • To add some humor to the situation, you might ask her (or tell her) about some of the slang terms used for a woman's period: Aunt Flo (or AF), Cousin Red, Delicate, on the rag, shark week, that time of the month, women's trouble. Do you find some of those terms more or less humorous? Does she think any are offensive to women?
  • One woman in Urskel's research is a cautionary tale: she reported feeling alone when her mother told her where to get supplies in the house, but gave no instruction on how to use the sanitary products. Perhaps her mother was shocked at the thought of her daughter growing up, and all that it entailed. That IS a lot for a parent to process. But this is a time to keep daughter's needs foremost. Rather than feeling frightened, uncertain what to do, and ignored, this was an ideal time for a daughter and parent to become closer.

Expect any of the following emotions during menarche: sadness about lost childhood, fear about all that becoming a woman means in our society, dread of cramps and discomfort, or pride in her burgeoning womanhood. Affirm that all of these emotions are okay and that it will become a special part of her connection with nature and the cycle of life.

Finally, perhaps almost as important as opening up the lines of communication with your daughter: Keep her privacy paramount. Many girls don't want their first period to be discussed outside of their relationship with their parent or closest friend. You'll go a long way with earning your daughter's trust and respect if you look to her to gauge her comfort with her Big News. Err on the side of keeping quiet to friends and family.

A girl's monthly cycle can be charted in Toni Wechsler's fantastic book “Cycle Savvy: The Smart Teen's Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body.” It may be especially well received by older teen girls. Wechsler's book is the teen version of the best-selling women's care book “Taking Charge of your Fertility.”

I'm a big Weschler fan, and I think she hits just-the-right tone of self-respect and wonderment for the female body and its capabilities. The first half of the book is about the full menstrual cycle (ovulation signs, and menstruation nuts-and-bolts) and the second half is about sexual decision-making in young adulthood. Before purchasing the book, take a look at on-line reviews or a copy to make sure it is consistent with your personal values and your daughter's age. I encourage you to check out chapter 6, which examines the issue of respect and sexual decision-making. I personally think that part of the book is ideal for mid-to-late teen girls' personal libraries.

Thank you to Lacey Tatosky, Mariah Barden, and Leanne Arsenault for editing assistance on this podcast. I'm Karol Maybury recording at the Psychology Department of the University of Maine at Farmington for the Society for the Psychology of Women.