Speaking to teens about periods can be a continuation of a conversation that began before, when they were young children. But if that's not the case for your situation, don't panic! It's ok to begin that conversation in the teen years. Better later than never! Are you feeling a little nervous? That's natural. Just remember that there's dignity and worth in our female bodies. This is an opportunity to provide practical help in bodily care-taking as well as respectful friendships.
It is probably more effective to visit the topic in small chunks every so often than consider a "one-and-done" conversation the end of it. Let's be honest: teens are unlikely to want to sit through a long earnest slide-show put on by their parents about periods. Be prepared for a little eye-rolling perhaps, but don't be put off by it. If you keep it short, casual, and matter-of-fact, each chat is practically painless.
So there are two main kinds of conversations: the one that builds on prior discussion and the one that's brand new. In both cases, it's helpful to equip your teen with an adequate vocabulary and avoiding relying only on euphemisms. A good vocabulary allows for accuracy, and that makes room for depth and nuance as understanding grows. So the first step is to make sure you're calling menstrual periods just that - or something like "periods" or "menses" - and not just calling them "cycles." A menstrual period is a part of a cycle, but not the whole cycle. In order to understand the natural, normal function of a female body, it's important to place periods in their rightful context of cycles. In a cycle, there is 1 - preparation for ovulation (the follicular phase), 2 - ovulation, and 3 - preparation for a potential pregnancy (the luteal phase). When pregnancy doesn't occur, the process starts over each cycle, beginning with the period. Bleeding is a positive and productive part of the reproductive cycle.
It's fine to make sure they know the common terms they may encounter, or that you tend to use yourself, like "AF" (Aunt Flo), but ensure they know the "real" terms behind them. Periods are a normal part of becoming an adult, and a normal part of adult female experience. But there are dishearteningly many demeaning and disgusting terms made up to describe menses and the products we use to manage our blood flow. Normalizing the topic can help take away the inventive stings created around a taboo.
Now, teens. This means not just your female teens, but your male teens as well. There's no benefit to boys being ignorant about the experiences of their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, and future wives - or in them considering the natural function of the female body as "icky." Ignorance means they'll be prey to misinformation and harmful stereotypes, and this can affect mature relationships in the future. The discussion with your sons may go differently than with your daughters, but they, too, should know biologically correct explanations, as well as enough to be sympathetic if a friend or relative isn't feeling well throughout their cycle.
Normal and Healthy
Let teens know what having a period may feel like, and the things that are a normal part of a healthy experience, and the things that aren't "normal" or that are warning signs for a woman's health. Have you ever met women with severe period problems who thought they were normal because a period is a "curse" and a "woman's lot in life"? I've met women who believed that fainting from the pain, or bleeding for eleven straight days, was "fine" simply because it was her accustomed experience. Something that is "normal to you" because it occurs frequently or has occurred for a long time doesn't mean it's "healthy." With better education and support, more girls will become women empowered to advocate for their health. And our boys become men empowered to encourage their loved ones and support them in seeking medical attention for debilitatingly heavy or painful periods.
Teach Care Culture
Being matter of fact can reduce or eliminate embarrassment. But even more important is building what @pearlandthistle calls "a culture of care." This term is usually used for girls helping girls, but I'll extend it to our boys as well. For example, if a boy sees a girl with a blood stain on the back of her skirt, he can with kindness and confidence, quietly let her know and perhaps offer her a sweater or shirt to tie around her waist while she sorts it out. She's not gross, and it's not for making fun of.
It's really pretty simple. A few facts presented in a casual and matter-of-fact way, some personal stories and encouragement, an appreciation for the beautiful complexity of the female body, and a reminder to treat others with respect and care. Our teens may or may not show gratitude for these little period chats at the time, but you can feel confident you're preparing them well for a healthy future.
Mikayla Dalton is a childbirth educator and certified FABM instructor in the Boston Cross Check method, which includes urine hormone tests, cervical mucus and basal body temperature tracking in its observational toolbox. She's been working as a FABM educator since 2011, and specializes in the postpartum & breastfeeding phases of use as that's a time many women find more difficult to navigate. She's also a femtech geek whose husband once commented that she looked like the Borg Queen with all her fertility charting wearables on, and her bathroom sometimes resembles a lab. She blogs at Fig Leaf Fertility. If you love this post and would like to thank Mikayla, shop Tempdrop with Mikayla's unique referral link.