If you asked an average adolescent girl to describe the intricacies of her menstrual cycle, she’d probably be at a loss, except to say it comes once monthly, it’s messy, and it makes her crave french fries and chocolate.
What she most likely won’t be able to express (and simply isn’t aware of) are the multitude of hormonal changes that take place in her body every month and how such fluctuations can do a real number on her moods, social and personal behaviors, and ultimately her mental health.
Most teen girls are aware of the term “PMS” and its symptoms — perhaps she’ll feel a little more weepy and sensitive, and maybe her temper will be shorter and she’ll feel angry for no reason. But few can grasp the severity of it, and until they have succumbed to its consequences and acted out in an extreme way against others or themselves, they may not even be aware of the correlation between such behavior and their periods.
Leslie Carol Botha, an internationally recognized expert on women’s hormones and behaviors and co-author of Understanding Your Mind, Mood, and Hormone Cycle, discovered while working with at-risk female teens, that over 90% of the teens she worked with (ages 13 to 17) who ended up in jail were on their periods. She states, “They acted out while they were premenstrual,” and she attributes it to “the lack of relevant education about body literacy and hormone effects on behaviors.”
She was also struck by the higher amount of suicide attempts that take place in the days preceding menstruation versus the other weeks of a cycle.
In an attempt to educate the girls on how their cycles can affect their behaviors, she developed a comprehensive menstrual cycle education program, one which would specifically teach a very detailed charting of their cycles.
Typically, the charting of menstrual cycles is associated with fertility planning — with women trying to either become pregnant or avoid it — and consists of writing down specific symptoms they are experiencing every day of the month. By monitoring basal body temperature and cervical mucus changes, as well as recognizing other symptoms, women can anticipate their ovulation dates and period dates.
But what they can also chart are their mood swings, specifically emotional changes and feelings such as despair, sadness, and anger. By doing so, they can also learn to anticipate these behaviors and prepare for them rather than simply react to them.
Botha turned her charting lesson into somewhat of an art lesson and began to teach young women to recognize and chart (with markers and stickers) when they were beginning to go down what she calls a “rabbit hole” of destructive emotions and behaviors. She notes that after after just a few months, the girls began to expect the “rabbit hole” of “increased anger, disruptive and self-destructive behaviors, suicidal ideation, and drug and alcohol cravings.”
They knew exactly when it was going to appear, and that it was temporary and not a symptom that they were losing control. It was also easier for the girls to resist acting impulsively when they knew what they were feeling would end after a few days and soon enough they would feel back to normal again.
By teaching teen girls the emotional benefits of charting their cycles, we’re teaching them the power of the ability to control their own bodies and make good choices based upon their current state of mind. Instead of feeling hostage to massive shifts in estradiol and progesterone levels, they can learn to anticipate changes and take steps to reduce their effects.
This is a lesson that women of all ages can benefit from, as even grown women and mothers are not immune to the “rabbit hole” of premenstrual behaviors. Charting our menstrual cycles only for the sake of fertility behaviors is a disservice to the complexities of the female body, as we are so much more than the ability to create people.
Teaching our teen daughters about the magnificent changes (hormonally, physically, and emotionally) that our bodies undergo every month — which will one day make it possible for them to conceive — is tantamount to them developing a healthy relationship with their bodies and can ultimately keep them safer and more emotionally stable during the tumultuous teen years.