She’s going to get it. Some day. A period. Period.
For parents of tween girls, that reality gets closer everyday. And, for better or for worse, parents’ actions, words, and attitude about this significant and inevitable milestone can make or break a girl’s experience moving forward.
“A lot of parents don’t want their little girl to grow up. It’s hard,” says Suzan Hutchinson, menstrual activist, educator, and founder of PeriodWise.com. “They don’t want to accept she is getting older. In fact, they are not expecting [her period to ever arrive]. They are in total shock.”
Let’s remove the shock factor. According to experts, girls, on average, will get their period about two years after the onset of breast budding — when tissue begins forming under the areola. Taking into consideration girls of all ethnic backgrounds, this means “Aunt Flo” will come knocking when a girl is about 12 years and six months old. And she will then stick around right through menopause.
But be forewarned: The average age of puberty has been steadily dropping since the early 20th century, when girls experienced their first period at age 16 or 17, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Below are some ways to start the conversation.
Studies on the effects of hormones in foods, such as meat and milk, as factors in early puberty have been inconclusive. Dr. Andrea Zuckerman, chief of pediatric and adolescent gynecology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, attributes the age shift to better nutrition and overall health compared to hundreds of years ago.
“But the major thing that has changed in the last 50 years is an increase in obesity among adolescents,” Dr. Zuckerman says. “Obesity does seem to play a role in earlier onset of puberty. Not for all kids, but definitely for some.”
Unless a child is very young — as in, under 7 years old — doctors will not intervene with methods to delay menstruation and instead will let nature takes its course.
Whether the monthly “friend” becomes a sworn enemy or more of a tolerable neighbor will depend greatly upon from whom and where tween girls get their information. No matter how uncomfortable it may seem to discuss menstruation, it is both a milestone and a major turning point in the lives of all young women.
“The onset of menses can be a confusing time, but talking about the details will help confusion give way to comfort,” says Wendy Bulawa Agudelo, Andover mom and “Chief Maxi” of Period Packs, a small business that offers a line of period-themed gift packages that “welcome young ladies to womanhood.” “There’s much to cover — from product choices (pads, liners, tampons, menstrual cups, feminine sprays, wipes, etc.), to grooming, hygiene, and even the ‘joy’ of chocolate consumption. Many young women will look to their peers or the Internet for information on menstruation, but their best sources are their parents or caregivers who can dole out information with proper context and support. This is one time when talk is not overrated.”
Dr. Zuckerman says talking to girls about their period is also age-dependent. “A patient that is 8, versus one that is 10, versus one that is 14, they all have varying abilities to deal with it,” she says. “I think it’s important whenever you are talking to your child to use the right terms: ‘You’re shredding the lining of your uterus and that’s what the bleed is from. This is normal. This happens. We can do things to make you more comfortable during this time. If you get cramping, we can give you medication to help.’”
Speaking of cramps: Just because a woman has periods accompanied by bloating, cramps, backaches and/or headaches doesn’t necessarily mean her daughter is destined to suffer the same fate. The truth is that every woman experiences periods differently. “Try not to have your own less-than-positive experience play into how you feel about your daughter getting hers,” Dr. Zuckerman advises.
“I think it’s helpful for parents to remain positive about this. In the way, way past, girls were isolated when they had their period and were treated like they were dirty and this wasn’t a normal part [of life]. I think it’s important to stay positive and to say, ‘Everyone experiences periods differently. I get a lot of cramps and maybe you won’t. Or vice versa. However, if you do get bad cramps or your periods are heavy, we can take you to a provider or doctor who can help you with this and we can help make it so you are able to go to school or soccer or cheer.’”
The bottom line: If girls don’t get information from their parents, they are going to find it elsewhere — and later than they need it.
“They risk poor body image or maybe feelings that their mom (or other parental figure) has let them down,” says PeriodWise.com’s Hutchinson. “They will go to the TV or Internet or to their friends and all the information will not be exactly accurate.”
A child’s pediatrician is another valuable resource for medical questions and overall encouragement, but don’t underestimate the value of older female relatives and confidants in easing a younger generation’s transition into menses. Agudelo, also a baystateparent contributing writer, says that sharing personal stories and bringing those memories to the forefront can make an awkward time much less uncomfortable.
“Talking about personal menstrual experiences reinforces how normal menstruation is, while adding much-appreciated humor to a conversation,” she adds. “I, personally, remember when adhesive-backed pads didn’t even exist and I had to wear belt-based pads. Every time I think about those belts, I realize what fun I’m going to have telling my daughter about menstrual solutions of yesteryear, while at the same time, creating a special bonding moment between us.”
What About Dads?
Most dads, understandably so, request a pass when it comes to talking puberty specifics with their daughters, but there’s a significant purpose that they must serve to make this time a positive experience for her. In other words, this is not the time to withdraw from the relationship.
“Dad has to be comfortable with changes,” Hutchinson explains. “It will be difficult for the child to be comfortable with who they are becoming if Dad becomes standoffish. She needs his acceptance. If she doesn’t get that from her father or father figure, she’ll look somewhere else for it and at a very vulnerable time of her life.”
She adds, most touchingly: “He is not going to lose who she was. He is going to gain who she will become.”
And that goes for all of us.
Blame It On The Hormones
Physical changes also mean emotional ones. All this estrogen coursing through young bodies can send even the most even-keeled child on a roller coaster of emotions and mood swings. Parent need to hang on for the ride.
“Let her know that it’s OK to express emotions. There is a lot going on emotionally, physically, and it can become overwhelming,” PeriodWise.com’s Hutchinson says. “She may be crying one minute and laughing the next one. Parents need to understand and not become frustrated. Expect it and let it happen. Love her and hug her and find positive ways to help her deal with it.”
How you can help:
• Encourage her to eat healthy foods.
If certain foods cause more bloating or discomfort, change her diet.
• If chocolate makes her feel better, give her some (in moderation).
• Help her take time to exercise.
• Encourage her to write in a journal and express herself.
• Celebrate with a special themed gift, such as a gift box from Period Packs or specially-made underwear from DearKate.com, recently featured in Time magazine. The under-wear provides extra protection for menstruating women and girls, and is available in tween sizes.
• Host a girls-only party.
• Celebrate with a special shopping trip or dinner.