As a mom and a gynecologist, I know a thing or two about the menstrual cycle. As a mom of three sons – ages nine, twelve, and fifteen – I also know that boys want to avoid conversations about periods and menstruation at all costs. When I had one of my sons trapped in the car on the way to soccer practice, I told him I was asked to write an article about how to talk to boys about periods. His response? “Mom, why would anyone want to read an article about periods?” Pressing on, I wondered if there was anything related to the subject he had questions about or wished I would answer for him. You’re not wrong in assuming the resounding silence, accompanied by what I call the Ugh-Moooom eye roll, meant that he most certainly did not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important for them to know about it!
Well, how should we talk to boys about a girl’s period? When should we start this conversation? What if it’s awkward? Here are some real-life answers to these questions and my approach with my own sons.
Timing is everything.
When one of my boys was around three, he found a box of tampons under my sink, pulled them all out of their wrappers and inserters and started playing with them because, as he shared later, they looked like fish. This is when I realized it’s never too early to start talking to your kids about bodies and the differences between boys and girls. We always have used real, anatomic terms to describe private parts, but even I was stumped about how to tell my three-year-old where tampons actually go and what I used them for in a way he would understand.
The timing will depend on your son and his curiosity as well as maturity. If you go by his cues, you can’t go wrong here. My advice is to be open, honest, direct, and answer his questions. You don’t have to have the birds and the bees talk just because he finds a tampon in your purse, but you should probably make sure he knows that it isn’t a fish.
What are periods?
Periods are a sign of puberty in girls. Boys will understand what a sign of puberty is because they seem to be obsessed with where their body hair is sprouting. You might say: A period is the time, usually once a month, where girls have vaginal bleeding. But don’t worry! This bleeding isn’t like bleeding from a cut. It’s from the lining of the uterus – the place in a body where babies grow. Periods usually last four to seven days, although this is different for everybody. Having a period means that a woman isn’t pregnant, but could become pregnant. The blood comes out to prepare the body to potentially become pregnant the next month.
Explain to your sons that having a period is normal, natural, and not a reason to worry for their sisters and friends or treat them any differently. Reassure your sons that girls can still do normal things when they are on their periods. They typically don’t have to miss school or activities.
What do girls do about bleeding?
Explain to your son that usually, the bleeding isn’t super heavy. In fact, most of the time girls can’t even feel the blood coming out. They can use pads that go inside underwear to catch the blood, or they can use tampons (not fish!). Tampons go inside the vagina (the tube from the uterus to the outside of the body) to catch the blood before it comes out. There are also special period underwear girls can wear that absorb the blood and keep it from getting on their clothes.
Sometimes, though, the blood is too much for the pads, tampons, or underwear, and it might get on a girl’s clothes. Please tell your boys that this can be embarrassing, but it is okay. She might have to change her clothes. You can remind your boys that if they see a girl with blood on her pants at school, they should never make a big deal about it to other people. They might offer her a hoodie to cover up the stain and help her get to the nurse’s office. She will be very grateful!
Do periods hurt?
Not usually, but the uterus is a muscle. During a girl’s period, the uterus works really hard, so cramping is pretty common. Ask your boys to imagine doing one hundred push-ups. Their muscles would be sore, too! Usually a heating pad or some over-the-counter medicine help a girl experiencing period pain feel better.
Why do some girls get mean on their periods?
Well, bud, this is the gift of hormones. Hormones are chemicals in our bodies that tell our bodies what to do. Everyone has them. For boys, testosterone is the hormone that helps boys grow tall, grow body hair, deepen their voices, etc.
Girls’ hormones, estrogen and progesterone in particular, change levels throughout the month depending on where the body is in its menstrual cycle. In addition to telling our bodies when to grow a lining in the uterus and when to have a period, the changing hormones can also make us feel irritable. These mood changes are particularly common around the start or right before the onset of a period. This is called PMS (premenstrual syndrome). It can feel very confusing and unsettling to have mood changes for what seems like no reason. However, there are also many valid reasons for emotional ups and downs in life that have nothing to do with hormone changes – for girls and boys. Invalidating someone’s feelings by saying they “must be PMSing” or “must be on their period” is not acceptable or kind. It’s helpful to remind your sons that everyone has mood swings – it’s part of being human.
Why explaining periods to your son is important.
If you’re open and honest with your son about things like finding a tampon in your purse when he’s little, he might be more comfortable about coming to you with trickier questions and concerns as he gets older. Rather than shying away, use those little opportunities to get the conversation rolling. It’ll probably be awkward at first for you both, but that’s okay!
Hopefully he will learn that periods are a normal part of life for girls and not a taboo topic. No matter how awkward the conversation is, you’re helping your son with some perspective and understanding, so he can show kindness and empathy in the future!