If you’ve got a daughter at primary school, it might feel like you’ve got a few years yet before you need to have ‘that’ conversation about periods. But take some advice from mum who knows – and don’t leave it too late.
Jane, who asked we didn’t use her real name, started her periods while we were at primary school together, aged nine. Thirty years on, she tells me she can still clearly remember the feelings of fear and confusion that prompted, because she didn’t have a clue what was happening to her. And it has made her determined to be as open as possible with her own primary school-aged daughter.
″I knew absolutely nothing when I started,” she says. “I was nine-and-a-half when I had a bit of spotting, some brownish tinges. And then a few weeks after my 10th birthday, on Halloween, I saw bright red blood – and I just screamed.”
[Read More: 1 In 5 Young Women Has Been Period-Shamed]
Jane had never talked about puberty at home with her parents. “I didn’t know what was coming out, why, how much there was going to be, or how long it would go on for,” she says.
“I didn’t want to wear pads because I didn’t want to admit that it was happening. I thought if I didn’t look at it, it would go away. That’s why I wore really small, thin pads and leaked everywhere. I just gave my mum my dirty underwear and tried not to think about it.”
“I thought if I didn’t look at it, it would go away.”
The Family Planning Association recommends speaking to girls about periods between the ages of five and eight – not surprising when you consider that girls are going through puberty earlier than previous generations, most likely linked to better nutrition and an increase in weight.
Claire Elwell, school nurse and spokesperson for the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association, said that while the average age for girls to start menstruating is 12, around 9% will start before they go to secondary school.
She told TheSchoolRun.com that she’s known children start their periods as early as Year 4 – but added that the girls who “cope best” with starting their periods early tend to be the ones who are well prepared, “and that comes from the parents”.
Being left in the dark, meant Jane was “totally traumatised” she explains. “I remember crying and screaming because I was scared… I asked my mum how long it would go on for, and she told me until you’re 40 or 50 – so from that moment, I began counting down the days.”
And she says that the worst thing was feeling so alone. “I kept it a secret and was waiting for one of my friends to say they’d started, but nobody had,” she says. “Everyone else was wearing crop tops and had flat chests, and there’s me with breasts and sweat under my armpits. I wanted it all to go away.”
Her experience as a child means she has vowed never to keep things from her daughter, who’s now 10. “I’ve been quite practical about it: I’ve showed her how to use pads – including where to put them if she needs to keep them at school, how to roll them up and throw them away, and about the importance of good hygiene.
“I told her how much blood she’ll lose and that it’s exciting, because it means her body is working well and might mean she can have a baby one day.”
How To Talk To Your Child About Periods
If you’re struggling to work out the best approach, these resources might help:
Pads 4 Dads
Family Planning Association
Talking to your children about puberty, growing up, relationships and sex can be difficult. The FPA has lots of tips and advice to give parents the confidence and knowledge to talk to their children, whatever their age.
There are Speakeasy courses run by the FPA for parents and carers, helping prepare them to talk to their children about sex and relationships.
The School Run
This learning and resources website for primary school parents has lots of tips - ranging from talking to your child’s teacher about PE and swimming lessons while they have their period, to finding out whether sanitary bins are provided in school toilet cubicles. They also suggest putting together a make-up bag full of the following essential items to give to your daughter to carry without embarrassment:
Sanitary towels (and/or tampons, but probably not for younger girls)
A handbag-size packet of wet wipes
A nappy sack in case she needs to bring dirty underwear home.