How to Have a Period Talk When You Don't Get a Period

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The period talk. Perhaps one of the most written about and fraught coming-of-age moments, this important conversation allows parents to help their child understand what will happen to their bodies, and how to manage this biological function for the next several decades.

But what happens when a parent who doesn't menstruate is tasked with the responsibility of having this talk with their child? How can they relate? We sat down with experts to learn more about how non-menstruating parents can feel empowered in this major developmental milestone and how to make this conversation go smoothly for everyone involved.

Why the Period Talk Matters

Every month, 1.8 billion people around the world menstruate. A portion of those are experiencing their period for the first time, also known as menarche, which occurs between the ages of 12 and 14. Those initial periods can bring a lot of emotions, which might range from excitement and anticipation to shame and confusion. However, those overwhelming feelings can be alleviated through open communication with a safe and trusted caregiver ahead of time.

Elisabeth Netherton, MD, psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Mindpath Health, says that preparing children for all the physical changes of puberty is necessary for their mental health.

"Menstruation can be frightening or scary when children don’t know what to expect, and it’s important that we’re able to provide them with information so they know what will happen, why it occurs, and how to navigate it," Dr. Netherton explains.

Parents must help children understand that having a period is a normal part of their lives, especially if they don't have a caregiver who menstruates themselves. Stephanie Hack, MD, MPH, FACOG, an OB/GYN and founder of Lady Parts Doctor Podcast, adds that menstruation is simply a part of life, and children with uteruses need to be prepared for the physical realities of eventually having a period.

"Talking about menstruation gives our children agency," Dr. Hack says. "Puberty and menarche represent a major shift in our children's bodies and the beginning of their reproductive potential. On average, they will menstruate for 40 years. Could you imagine not understanding a fundamental part of your body for half of your life?"

Wendy Goodall-McDonald, MD, an OB/GYN at Women's Health Consulting and founder of Dr. Every Woman, explains that while society has often made discussions about periods taboo, parents should work against this societal stigma.

"As children age, they become adults. I can't tell you how often I talked to young adults about how much they are bleeding and they have never had a discussion about what's normal versus what is excessive," Dr. Goodall-McDonald says. Talking about periods can help people be safe and avoid harm that could be caused by menstruation, she continues.

In the end, speaking to our children about this fundamental shift is all about empowering them within their bodies. "One of our main objectives in conversations with our children about puberty is to provide them with the information necessary to care for their bodies with increasing autonomy," Dr. Netherton says.

What's Commonly Covered in "The Talk?"

Menstruation is a biological process, but it can be challenging to explain to someone for the first time. The following topics are a great place to start when discussing periods with a young person who will eventually menstruate themselves.

What Is a Period?

Periods are a natural part of life for people with a uterus. "The 'period' is also known as menstruation. It is the part [of the menstrual cycle] when a person experiences bleeding and shedding of the uterine lining. In essence, it is the uterus's way of 'changing the sheets and cleaning the room,'" Dr. Goodall-McDonald explains.

The uterus "changes its sheets" monthly, to ensure a landing place for a fertilized egg. But when that egg doesn't arrive, menstruation occurs. "Each month during the menstrual cycle, the uterus builds a lining in preparation for a fertilized egg (pregnancy). If pregnancy does not happen, the lining is no longer needed and is shed. Once it is shed, the whole process begins again with the next menstrual cycle," Dr. Hack says.

How Periods Work

The menstrual cycle occurs in four parts, Dr. Goodall-McDonald says. The follicular phase is when the ovary prepares to release an egg, and the uterus builds a lining as a place to hold the egg. Next is ovulation, when the egg is released from the ovary and travels into the fallopian tube. The luteal phase is when the uterus prepares to nurture a fertilized egg. However, if the egg is not fertilized, it leaves the uterus. Menstruation is when the uterus sheds it's lining and gets ready to repeat the cycle.

Periods can last anywhere from two to seven days, and each full menstrual "cycle" takes place over an average of 28 days. This biological process is a normal part of having a uterus.

Side Effects of Periods

The experience of a period is different for everyone. "Some people only bleed without any other side effects," Dr. Goodall-McDonald says. But this experience is not typical, and periods can impact other parts of our bodies.

"Due to the changes in hormone levels leading up to a period, it may be accompanied by water retention (bloating), feeling tired, breast tenderness, breakouts, and changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or gas," Dr. Hack explains. Cramping can also occur when the uterus contracts, and some people experience mood swings and irritability.

It is also helpful for parents to explain that periods can be irregular at first. "Adolescents especially are more likely to experience irregularly timed periods, along with changes in the characteristics of their periods month to month. This factory is just getting started. It has to work out the kinks," Dr. Goodall-McDonald explains.

Options for Period Products

Having periods also means caring for the body and using products to help with bleeding. There are several options available, including disposable or reusable items.

Period underwear, which absorbs blood flow much like a pad, and menstrual cups, which are inserted in the vagina and can be worn for up to twelve hours, are reusable options. Pads, which adhere to the inside of underwear and are disposable, as well as tampons, which are inserted inside the vagina to absorb blood flow, are disposable.

Whatever your child chooses and is most comfortable with, Dr. Goodall-McDonald recommends parents help them select natural, safe products, especially at first.

"I really like products that have safe ingredients and materials. Steering away from phthalates and dioxide as well as fragrance is important for new menstruators," Dr. Goodall-McDonald explains.

Dr. Hack recommends non-aspirin NSAIDs and heating pads if your child experiences discomfort from cramping or bloating.

How to Prepare for Your Child's Questions

Let's face it: kids will always have questions. It's important to meet their curiosity with genuine care—but also by being accurate about what's going on in their bodies.

"Think about using scientifically accurate, age-appropriate language, while also being clear and concise," Dr. Netherton says. "Historically, we have talked about menstruation using vague, euphemistic language that leaves children completely confused about what we mean or what actually happens. Using vague language also conveys that periods shouldn’t be talked about directly or are in some way shameful—this is the opposite of what we’re wanting to convey."

Dr. Goodall-McDonald and Dr. Hack also recommend having your child speak to their pediatrician. Additionally, books about puberty can be helpful for kids and parents. "Some good options include Celebrate Your Body: The Ultimate Puberty Book for Girls by Dr. Carrie Leff and Dr. Lisa Klein; The Girls Body Book by Kelli Dunham, RN, BSN; and The Period Book by Karen and Jennifer Gravelle," Dr. Hack recommends.

A Word From Verywell

No matter whether a parent menstruates or not, it is important to be prepared for this major moment in your child's development. Periods and menarche are a natural part of life, perhaps even more so for a parent who faces the conversation without ever having menstruated themselves. But with some understanding of the process, and learning how to meet your kids' questions with compassion, "The Talk" doesn't have to be scary. Instead, it can be a moment of genuine connection and love.

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Your First Period (Especially for Teens).

  2. UNICEF. Menstrual Hygeine.

  3. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Your Changing Body: Puberty in Girls.

  4. UNICEF. Menstrual Hygeine.

  5. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The Menstrual Cycle: Menstruation, Ovulation, and How Pregnancy Occurs.

  6. Planned Parenthood. What's Up With Periods?

  7. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS).

  8. Planned Parenthood. How Do I Use Tampons, Pads, Period Underwear, and Menstrual Cups?

  9. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Dysmenorrhea: Painful Periods.

By Taylor Grothe
Taylor is a freelance writer, fiction author, and a nonbinary parent to two little children, ages five and three. Their fiction work can be found in Bag of Bones Press and Coffin Bell Journal, and their first novel is on submission to major publishing houses.