Preparing Your Daughter for Menarche

Puberty is a time of many changes. For young girls a defining event during this developmental process is menarche, which is defined as “the beginning of the menstrual function.”

MENARCHE can be a stressful time for young girls, and the event is often met with mixed emotions. Like many other changes associated with puberty, it can be confusing. Many girls experience fear and anxiety related to their first menstrual cycle, largely because of misinformation or, more frequently, lack of information.

Girls who are prepared for menarche often have a more positive initial experience with menstruation. However, studies show that many girls are not prepared. In one survey involving participants from 23 countries, nearly one third of the respondents reported that they had not been told about menarche prior to its occurrence. Being caught unawares, the girls did not know what to do when it came.

Some of the most negative experiences have been reported by women who had no education about menstruation or menarche. In one study, when describing their menarche, women used words such as “panic,” “traumatic,” “embarrassed,” and “scared” to recount their experience.

 The sight of blood generally frightens people, since bleeding is usually associated with pain or injury. Thus, it is not difficult to see that when proper explanation or preparation is lacking, cultural stereotypes, myths, or even plain ignorance can cause one wrongly to associate menstruation with disease or injury or to view it as something of which to be ashamed.

Your daughter needs to know that menstrual bleeding is a normal process that all healthy girls experience. As a parent, you can help her allay any feelings of anxiety or fear. How?

Parents’ Role Essential

There are many sources of information on menstruation, such as schoolteachers, health-care practitioners, printed material, and even educational films. Many parents find that these sources often provide valuable information on the biology of menstruation as well as menstrual hygiene. Still, girls may have questions and needs that these sources do not address. Even if they know what to do when their period comes, girls are often uncertain about how to deal with the varied emotions and feelings associated with menstruation.

Grandmothers, older sisters, and particularly mothers can help to provide the additional information and emotional support that young girls need. Most often, girls consider their mother to be the most important source of information about menstruation.

What about fathers? Many girls feel embarrassed to talk to them about menstruation. Some want their father to play an indirect role by offering support and understanding, while others prefer that he not be involved.

In many countries the number of single-father households has increased over the past few decades. * Thus, more and more fathers will need to rise to the challenge of educating their daughters about menstruation. These fathers will need to be familiar with the basics of menstruation as well as with the other physical and emotional changes their daughters are facing. Fathers may choose to turn to their own mothers or sisters for practical advice and help in this regard.

When to Start Discussions

In industrialized countries, such as the United States, South Korea, and parts of Western Europe, the average age for menarche is generally between 12 and 13 years, although it can occur as early as 8 and as late as 16 or 17. In parts of Africa and Asia, the average age for menarche tends to be higher. For example, in Nigeria the average age is 15. Several factors, such as genetics, economic status, nutrition, physical activity, and altitude, can affect the timing of menarche.

It is best to start sharing information with your daughter before she has her first period. Hence, conversations regarding body changes and menstruation should begin early, perhaps when your daughter is about eight years of age. You may feel that this is too early, but if your daughter is between the ages of eight and ten, it is likely that her body is already beginning to mature internally in response to surges of hormones. You will notice external physical changes associated with puberty, such as breast development and an  increase in body hair. Most girls experience a growth spurt (rapid increase in height and weight) right before menarche.

How to Approach the Subject

Girls who are approaching menarche are often curious about what to expect. Likely they have heard other girls at school discussing the subject. They have questions, but many have difficulty formulating exactly how to ask about it. They may be embarrassed about the subject.

The same is true for parents. Although mothers are usually the primary source of information about menstruation, they often feel ill-prepared and awkward when discussing the subject. Perhaps this is how you feel. So how do you begin a conversation about menarche and menstruation with your daughter?

Preteen girls who are approaching menarche are likely to understand simple, concrete information. Such information might include how often a period occurs, how long it lasts, or how much blood is lost. Thus, in the early stages of menstrual education, it may be best to focus on the more immediate and practical aspects of how to deal with menstruation. In addition, you may need to answer such questions as: How will it feel? or What should I expect?

Later, you may wish to discuss details of the biology of menstruation. Oftentimes, you can get educational materials from health-care practitioners or from the library or bookstore. Such reference works may be helpful in explaining the details. Some girls may prefer to read this material themselves. Others may feel comfortable if you read the material together with them.

Pick a quiet place to start the conversation. Begin with a simple discussion about growing up and maturing. Perhaps you could say: “Someday soon you are going to experience something very normal that happens to all girls. Do you know what it is?” Or a mother might start with a personal comment, such as: “When I was your age, I started to wonder about what it was like to have a period. My friends and I talked about it in school. Have your friends started talking about it yet?” Find out what she already knows about menstruation and clear up any misunderstandings. Be prepared for the fact that in your  initial conversations, you may need to do most if not all of the talking.

As a woman who no doubt experienced your own anxieties and concerns about menarche, you can draw upon your personal experience when discussing this subject. What did you need to know? What did you want to know? What information was helpful? Endeavor to provide a balanced view of the positive and negative aspects of menstruation. Be open to questions.

A Continuing Process

Menstrual education should be viewed as a continuing process rather than as a one-time discussion. You do not need to cover all the details in one sitting. Too much information all at once can be overwhelming for a young girl. Children learn things in stages. Also, repetition of information on different occasions may be necessary. As young girls grow older, they are more able to understand additional details.

Another factor is that girls’ attitudes toward menstruation change throughout adolescence. After your daughter gains more experience with her periods, she will likely face new concerns and questions. Hence, you need to continue to share information with her and answer her questions. Focus on what is most meaningful and appropriate for your daughter’s age and ability to understand.

Take the Initiative

But what do you do if your daughter appears not to be interested in the subject? It may be that she is reluctant to talk about personal matters. Or maybe she just needs some time to feel comfortable enough with the subject to formulate questions. She may even say that she already knows everything she needs to know.

In one study of sixth-grade girls in the United States, most of the girls viewed themselves as prepared for menarche. However, upon further questioning, it was clear that their knowledge was incomplete and reflected that they had already accepted as truth a variety of misconceptions based on cultural stereotypes and myths. So, even if your daughter says that she is ready for menarche, she still needs to have you talk to her about it.

It will likely be up to you to initiate short talks about menstruation and continue them. Really, it is your parental responsibility. Whether she acknowledges it at the time or not, your daughter needs your help. You may feel frustrated and inadequate, but do not give up. Be patient. In time, your daughter will no doubt come to appreciate just how valuable your efforts were.

[Footnote]

^ par. 12 In Japan the number of single-father households reached a record high in 2003. In the United States, single-father households make up about 1 in 6 of all single-parent households.

[Blurb on page 11]

It is best to share information with your daughter before she has her first period

[Box on page 13]

HOW TO TALK TO YOUR DAUGHTER ABOUT MENSTRUATION

Find out what she already knows. Clear up misconceptions. Make sure you and she have accurate information.

Share your experience. By reflecting upon and sharing your own experience of menarche, you can provide much-needed emotional support for your daughter.

Offer practical information. Common questions young girls ask include: “What do I do if I get my period at school?” “What menstrual products should I use?” “How do I use them?”

Present factual material simply. Adapt material to your daughter’s age and ability to grasp it.

Promote continuous learning. Begin talks with your daughter before she reaches menarche, and continue such talks as necessary, even after she begins menstruating.

[Picture on page 12, 13]

Be understanding. Your daughter might be reluctant to talk about personal matters