How to talk to your child about periods

Woman hugging child, representing healthy periods conversation. (Getty Images)
Talking to your child about periods doesn't have to be an uncomfortable conversation. (Getty Images)

Around 15 million people in the UK have periods, with girls typically starting at 12 years old (though it can be as early as eight). And yet, menstruating is still often introduced in hushed tones.

One in three young people don't feel prepared for their first period, with the top three emotions being 'scared', 'confused', and 'embarrassed', according to research by Always. This is likely partly down to the fact that one in three parents also feel awkward about explaining puberty and periods to their kids.

"Periods can feel very scary to young people. No matter how gently we try to describe the concepts of growing up, reaching puberty and transitioning into adulthood, young people may still find it tricky to understand. Which is why speaking about periods is incredibly important," says family psychotherapist Fiona Yassin.

"Not only does talking about them help to squash the stigma, it also helps to ensure children feel more comfortable, confident and informed about their bodies."

So, why not take that step towards breaking the taboo for young people and raising awareness of the importance of periods for everyone who menstruates around the world? Here Yassin, founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, shares the perfect starter guide to help you along the way as a parent or carer.

Talking to children periods. (Getty Images)
While you know your child best, there are some simple dos and don'ts that can help. (Getty Images)

First, let's start with what not to do.

"Parents who feel uncomfortable when talking about periods tend to charge through a lecture-style speech on the topic, leaving little or no space for the child to process or ask questions. When the conversation comes from a place of the parent’s discomfort, it’s unlikely to meet the child’s needs," Yassin explains.

"Other parents may shy away from the conversation altogether or use silly or derogatory words for periods, the vulva and the vagina, which only adds to the idea that a woman’s reproductive system is something to be ashamed of. This can fuel feelings of embarrassment and leave the child wanting to hide their period and emotions."

Allow yourself time to gather all the facts first if needed, to increase your confidence answering questions.

"Throughout history, periods have been widely characterised as an illness and a medical 'problem'. As parents, it’s really important we shut down myths about periods and normalise them as much as possible," says Yassin.

"Help your child to understand that periods will likely not bring their life to a halt by sharing examples of inspiring women from around the world in sport, the arts and entertainment, technology, business, or a topic your child is interested in."

Plus, it's about menstrual health, not hygiene, as periods aren't unhygienic.

Mother and teenage boy going home from school
It's not just girls who need to learn about periods. (Getty Images)

"Some mums show their children their own sanitary towel or demonstrate how to insert a tampon. Although mums may have the best intention, this can usually lead to embarrassment and fear for the child. For children, the sight of blood can be really scary and they may misinterpret that there is something medically wrong with mum," the family psychotherapist points out.

"It’s really important parents watch their body language when talking about periods. A disgusted, shocked or judgemental face when someone else, or your child, mentions a period can breed feelings of fear."

These are guaranteed to make those conversations less 'awkward'.

"There is no 'right' age to start talking about periods, but it is important that girls understand periods before they have their first one. The normal age range for a first period is any time between nine and 16, but the average age is around 12," Yassin reminds us.

"Period conversations often crop up in the family unit if a child sees their mum or an older sibling using period products. Try not to shy away from questions that may arise, but avoid jumping in and giving too much information, too quickly. Leaning into questions with age-appropriate language and information, will help to lay a pathway for future, and more in depth, conversations.

"It’s likely you’ll receive information from your child’s school to let you know when and how periods will be discussed in the curriculum. This could be a useful guide on when to start talking to your child about them."

"Whatever age your child is, one of the most important points is to ensure that they are ready to engage with you. Just because you want to deliver the information, does not mean that your child is ready to listen," says Yassin.

"During the conversation, it is your role as a parent to look for clues and signals from your child – are they fidgeting, wriggling, or agitated? If you notice discomfort, it’s time to put the conversation on pause."

Loving young mother and happy teen daughter kid hugging with closed eyes and face touches, enjoying warm family moment, childhood, motherhood, expressing love, affection
While it's important to talk about periods early, you also want to make sure the conversation isn't forced on them. (Getty Images)

It's not just the bleeding that will be new.

"Familiarise yourself with the average timeline of puberty changes and educate your child – using age-appropriate and gentle language – on what changes they can expect, before they actually happen," says Yassin.

"Ensure they understand they may experience greater and more erratic emotions before and during a period, and that these emotions are completely normal. Learning healthy ways to manage these big emotions could really help your child.

"If you notice your child is struggling with negative emotions, or is distressed, seek the help of a doctor together. Normalising speaking to a doctor about periods and menstrual health is important so they feel they can ask their own questions when they need to."

Talking about how girls experience periods around the world will help them understand it's not just happening to them. "For example, many girls in developing countries are not able to go to school during their periods because they cannot access sanitary products or hygiene equipment," says Yassin.

"The ability to mentalise – the capacity to ‘read’, access and reflect on mental states in ourselves and other people – is important during any change we experience. Giving children a global perspective on periods can help them to understand their position, create intrigue about how other people experience periods and encourage global citizenship.

"There are lots of amazing charities that supply sanitary products to people who cannot afford them and to countries around the world where they are not easily accessible. When the time is right, you may want to share information about these charities with your child."

Smiling friends walking in college corridor. Classmates talking to each other.
Educating boys about periods can hep them become more supportive of those with periods. (Getty Images)

"Part of the stigma around periods is because of the 'girls-only' approach of previous generations. Although there may be some giggles and discomfort, it’s important boys learn about girls’ bodies and how they work. Educating boys about periods can help them to become more supportive and empathetic to those who experience periods," Yassin explains.

"If you find your son or daughter is teasing a sibling or friend, or is throwing sanitary products around, it’s important you stamp this behaviour out quickly, but respectively. A first period can be a particularly sensitive time for girls and we need to ensure there isn’t any nastiness which could fuel feelings of shame and embarrassment."

It's important for dads not to shy away from period talk too. "It can be even more difficult for dads, in part because they may have been taught that periods are a 'women’s issue' only. If we are to reduce the stigma and normalise periods, dads need to be involved, too. For dads new to period talk, take it upon yourself to learn, and be positive about periods so your child understands that they are normal and healthy. You could also ask your child to teach you what they know and learn together."

Shot of a father and daughter bonding indoors
Periods are a normal part of everyday life and there shouldn't be any shame in talking about them. (Getty Images)