Here’s what I remember about being a teenager and getting my first period.
I remember a very awkward health class where an extremely ill equipped male gym teacher explained female anatomy and showed us what a tampon looked like.
I remember not really knowing what to expect but feeling like I should.
I remember getting it for the first time, by some cruel twist of fate in that same gym teacher’s class and calling my mom to pick me up because I had no way to manage it and I sure wasn’t about to ask that teacher for help.
I remember my mom handing me my first tampon and having to read the instructions to figure out what the heck to do with it.
I generally remember the whole experience being inconvenient and yucky.
I don’t believe our girls need to have that same experience today.
Last year I partnered with teen naturopath, Dr. Erin TeWinkelto create The Teen Collective, a community health initiative for female identifying pre-teens and teens to educate them in a more empowered and inspiring way to take control of their health. We teach a lot of important information from building a positive body image to the essential nutritional fuel they need for a healthy body, but without a doubt the session that is always the most engaged and the most fun is when we teach about the menstrual cycle.
Yes you read that correctly. I said FUN!
You see I have this belief that your period can be your superpower. When we teach teens how to understand and better yet tap into their natural female hormones they start to feel like it is less of an inconvenience and more of a privilege. When we do a really good job of preparing them, we reduce their anxiety and help them see it as a right of passage.
Here is the problem, as parents we are often ill equipped for this conversation simply because the research, the environmental impact and products have changed drastically since our days in awkward gym classes. Instead what happens is too many families pass along a legacy of burdensome periods simply because they don’t know any better.
But as Maya Angelou once said, once you know better, you do better. So based on our conversations and teaching with teens, here are a few things I would like both you and your teen to know about healthy teen periods.
It might come sooner than you think
While it is true that the average age of a girl’s first period tends to be about 12 years old, we are starting to see girls get their first period as early as 8 years old. While there are multiple hypotheses about why this might be the case, many believe it is because of increased environmental toxicity. More specifically the increase in environmental and nutritional estrogen that we are consuming in addition to our naturally occurring estrogen.
This becomes a problem when we use age 12 as a benchmark. We assume that our preteens aren’t ready for this type of information but when they are without it, it leaves them more vulnerable to feelings of shame and embarrassment when they are caught unaware. Bottom line, if we want to empower our girls there is no better tool than knowledge and it is never too early to have the conversation.
Signs that your preteen or teen might be getting ready to have their first period is the development of breast tissue or breast buds, increased body hair growth or the presence of cervical discharge which is a sign of ovulation.
It might take a while to get it right but when it does you will have a built in body report card
It takes a while for teens to start to have a normal period. Our bodies are incredible vessels but even they have a learning curve.
It is extremely normal to take upwards of a year before a teen starts to see consistent regularity in her cycle. It is also normal for cycle lengths to be longer and irregular. If your teen continues to have irregular, missed or unusually heavy periods after a year, it might be a good idea to check in preventatively with a period informed practitioner (yes there is a difference).
When it does start to regulate though, it can be an amazing tool towards helping us understand our bodies. Scientists believe that our hormonal flow is the 5th vital sign because of how much information it provides on the health of our bodies. Dysfunction can be a wonderful tool of early detection but only if you understand it.
Talking about periods can challenging, heck all of adolescence can be challenging but it doesn’t need to be. If you are enjoying this conversation, you will definitely want to join us in April as we draw on our extensive work with teens and preteens to let you in on The 5 Most Awkward Conversations You Will Have With Your Teen and How to Handle Them.
Tracking can be so much more powerful than simply predicting your period. In our course and membership we teach our participants how to track their cycles as a means of uncovering their innate superpower.
Each of our hormones has a different expression, both physically and emotionally, and being able to use those as tools can be the ultimate feminine edge. For example when estrogen rises following menstruation in our follicular phase, girls feel bolder and braver. They are physically stronger. It is a perfect time to reach out to a new friend, volunteer in class or try a new physical skill.
Conversely when progesterone becomes the dominant hormone in the luteal phase, girls can be more emotionally expressive, require more rest but also be more creative. This is a wonderful time for deep conversations with your teen or engaging with them in their more artistic side. Pushing hard during this phase actually goes against a girl’s physiology and creates more stress in their systems.
When we start to help teens understand their monthly cycles we can also help them plan for success. It is helpful for us to understand that unlike their male counterparts, they are not going to be consistent from day to day and emotional ebbs and flows are simply the truest expression of their own anatomy.
The pill is not going to make your periods any better
I really wish someone had properly explained this to me before my 17 year stint with oral contraceptives. Please understand that I am not advocating against birth control, I am simply asking that all menstruators be given fully informed consent. Most oral contraceptives don’t resolve menstrual symptoms, they actually disrupt the cycle, often suppressing ovulation and masking symptoms.
Let’s leave the host of side effects from oral contraceptives to one side and just acknowledge the fact that I told you earlier that your period is your 5th vital sign and we have just offered a solution that takes it away. When we eliminate a natural cycle there is a good chance that we might miss the underlying causes of what was contributing to those symptoms in the first place. In fact when a woman decides to stop oral contraceptive use, those symptoms often come back but after years of suppression they can in fact become worse. Ladies, acne in your late 30s or 40s is not fun. Please do your due diligence in understanding all contributing factors, risks and benefits before deciding to use contraception as a means of alleviating symptoms.
Being a Teenager or having PMS is not a write off for emotional expression
She’s so crabby. Ugh my teenager is so moody. You must be PMS’ing.
We’ve heard it all before and I’m pretty ready to call BS. Being a teenager or experiencing a normal hormonal cycle should not make you an emotional pariah. In fact when we use normal transitions into adolescence or womanhood as a way to dismiss a preteen or teen’s feelings and legitimate emotions we are actually failing as parents, peers and colleagues.
It is true that when progesterone takes over in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, teens may emote more expressively. It is not that the emotions weren’t there in the first place, they simply have more access to them and the ability to articulate them. Those feelings and emotions are legitimate and not a flux of physiology.
It is also important to note that normal adolescent brain development will have them lean into deeper emotional relationships with their friends and sometimes shy away from their parents. Remember when they were babies and they would stay awake all night because they were practicing the skill of rolling over or trying to pull up in their cribs? This is no different, this is how teens practice the skill of independence.
So next time you feel that your teen is being dismissive or moody remember that it is a normal part of their development. Seize the opportunity to lean into more introspective discussions with them when the cycle encourages them to share but most important drop the guilt or shame associated with their normal expression of legitimate feelings and thoughts. You might just learn a bit more about what is going on in their heads.
When in doubt prepare, prepare, prepare
This is probably the subject that we get the most questions about in our courses. Girls above all else are very anxious about getting their period for the first time and not being prepared. I think they all have the image in their mind that it will most definitely happen on the one day they chose to wear white pants to school, they won’t know what to do and mom (or dad) won’t be home when they call.
This is such a simple worry to alleviate for our young menstruators. We typically suggest that if you start to notice signs that your preteen or teen might be getting ready to have their first period (or they are simply curious), have a discussion with them around creating a period kit. I love that there are actually teen specific brands and products on the market now that are age appropriate, healthy and environmentally conscious. Something like period proof underwear (Knixteen by Knix is my favourite) is a wonderful entry product for girls of this age.
Having an open conversation about what type of products they might be comfortable using and showing them how to use it properly is a really great starting point.
Being able to have that conversation thought might take a little research on your part. Period products have changed tremendously and simultaneously not at all since I started using them. There is much more choice on the market and you may not be as familiar with some of the gateway products. Ultimately when it comes to researching products I suggest you look at functionality (some girls will not be comfortable with a tampon or cup but athletes might not be able to use pads effectively in their sport), read the label (it would shock you how many products are laden with products, bleach or fragrance being some of the more dangerous) and hygiene (it is something they will be able to use and change properly outside of the home).
Regardless of what you choose, the most important part is that they feel supported and prepared. Learning about products and building a kit together will make this a much easier subject to broach.
I hope you’ve taken away some important ways we can help our preteens and teens change the narrative on period health. Our big goal in The Teen Collective is to wipe away the legacy of shame and guilt on the topic and help girls create a ripple effect of empowered health in their communities.
One of the best compliments we get from parents is when they thank us for saving them several awkward conversations. Ideally I would love for those conversations not to be awkward anymore but I understand that a movement takes time. If you and your teen would like to learn more on the subject, please join us for one of our free masterclasses happening in April or learn more about The Teen Collective here.
Melanie Stevens Sutherland, Clinic Director & Senior Orthopaedic and Pelvic Floor Physiotherapist
Melanie is a graduate of McMaster University and brings 17 years of experience as a senior physiotherapist to Body Co. She has enjoyed a long tenure working with active populations at prestigious sport medicine clinics. Past clients include Provincial, National and Olympic level athletes as well as members of the National Football League, the Canadian Football League, the Ontario Hockey League, the American Hockey League, the National Lacrosse League and Major League Soccer.
Following the birth of her own children, Melanie developed a strong interest in women’s health. She has taken specialized courses in pelvic floor physiotherapy and women’s nutrition. She is passionate about helping women find strength and confidence in their post-natal bodies following pregnancy and delivery.