When Krista Leclerc’s* 10-year-old daughter, Hannah, told her she’d gotten her first period, Leclerc was surprised—she hadn’t expected it to happen for a few years yet. But she was also relieved they’d already been discussing menstruation since Hannah was nine. “I’d kept it all very matter-of-fact and open, and tried to keep a sense of humour too,” says Leclerc.
Leclerc answered questions that Hannah and her sister, Daphne, now eight, had as they learned about puberty in school. They did things like opening pad and tampon packages together so Leclerc could demystify feminine hygiene products and show them how to use them. She made sure they talked about how to cope with period pain and how to deal when you’re just feeling So. Freakin’. Emotional.
In Canada, most girls get their first period between age 12 and 13, but around 15 percent get it earlier, as young as eight or nine. However, “no age is too young to start the conversation,” says Saleema Noon, a sexual health educator in Vancouver. Just keep it positive and age-appropriate, she says, “so it’s not a scary thing.”
When Noon talks to school groups about periods, the boys and girls in the audience are in grades two and three. (Yes, boys should learn the basics too, both to prevent bullying or teasing, and to clear up any misinformation they may have come across.) She lets them know that periods are a healthy and normal part of female adulthood and they start during puberty, a time when bodies gradually change from kid to adult.
She also describes the actual process using age-appropriate explanations. “I say: ‘The uterus practises for being a grown-up by making a kind of waterbed inside itself that’s made of soft skin and a little bit of blood. Every month, when there isn’t a baby growing in there, the uterus changes the bed, and the old one comes dripping out of the vagina. You use a pad or tampon to catch those drips.’” Noon also emphasizes to kids that while the discharge looks like blood because of its brown or red colour, it’s actually made up of mostly water.
Having the conversation can be a little squirmy for both you and your kid, but Noon suggests looking for natural opportunities, like seeing a tampon ad or a reference in a show (check out Diane’s chill reaction to her first period on Black-ish). Of course, there are also lots of books available.
Andrea Willis’s daughter Leia* started asking about puberty when she was 10, after learning about it in school. So that brought them to the bookstore, where Willis picked out titles to read and go over with her. “She also studied those books on her own, so she felt on top of things,” says Willis. Noon recommends The Care and Keeping of You series produced by American Girl, and Puberty Girl by Shushann Movsessian for their down-to-earth and accurate content.
Once your daughter begins menstruating, help her identify the patterns of her period, so she can start predicting when it will start (and end). Make sure she’s prepared with sanitary products, painkillers (if required) and clothing that’s less likely to show leaks. You might also want to pick up leak-proof underwear such as Knixteen and Thinx. While Willis’s generation used Xs on a calendar to track their cycle as teens, Leia and her friends follow theirs with phone apps, such as Period Tracker, iPeriod and Flo.
Noon says it’s important to do some myth-busting too. Kids are often concerned about the amount of blood they’ll shed—which is pretty small, ranging from three tablespoons to a quarter cup—or that a tampon will get lost inside them (not physically possible). It’s also good to cover off functional stuff, like always having emergency pads or tampons in her locker and school bag. Talk about what to say to a teacher, the school secretary or a friend’s mom if her period begins while away from home.
As soon as that first period kicks in, talk about practical things like swimming, what to do if you get blood on your clothes, and how exercise, a heating pad and medication can all help with pain. Noon recommends trying not to put too much focus on pain right away, unless cramps become an issue. And don’t forget that for some girls, it’s all very emotional: It helps to hear that it’s totally OK to feel a little weird, excited or freaked out about this milestone.
Male parents should be included in these talks too, so they can be supportive and understanding. Willis gave her husband a crash course on period supplies, as well as crankiness. “The first few months, he was like, ‘What is going on with her mood?’” she recalls. The good thing is Leia knows that even if she’s, like, mortified, she can always go to her dad if she needs help—he’ll know what to do.
Periods can be a hassle, but being upbeat about them helps. Remind your girl that pretty much every woman she admires—Zendaya, Emma Watson, that cool art teacher—gets her period and does just fine. It’s all about being prepared and then going with the flow.
*Names have been changed