The more you know

We Need To Talk To Our Kids About Puberty Earlier Than You Think

Here’s a guide to the questions they might ask you — be ready.

by Jen Swetzoff and Keeley McNamara
Originally Published: 
Talking to kids about periods earlier because they are getting it earlier.
Emely/Image Source/Getty Images

We’ve been best friends for a long time — it’s been 37 years since we met in kindergarten. So long that we navigated puberty together, and we’re now navigating it together again with our kids. We both got our periods relatively late compared to our other friends, at 14 and 15. That was back in the mid-1990s when the average age for getting your first period was around 12. So, we both remember waiting and waiting, and worrying that something was wrong because we hadn’t gotten ours yet. Checking our underwear on the regular, like every single time we went to the bathroom. And when it finally did come, that first little reddish brown stain, we were oh-so ready. We learned about menstruation in our fifth-grade health class. We read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret again and again. We had talked about periods with all of our other friends who had already gotten theirs. We knew where our moms kept the pads and tampons.

But today, our kids’ friends are getting their periods much earlier — some in fourth and fifth grade, at 8 and 9 years old. In fact, 10% of girls in the US get their first period before the age of 10. And during the pandemic, the number of children experiencing early or precocious puberty (signs of puberty before the age of 8) increased exponentially worldwide.

What happens when kids get their first periods before they even have the vocabulary to talk to their BFF about it? If they don’t understand what’s happening to their bodies during puberty, and if they don’t feel like they can talk about it, they can end up feeling sad, scared, ashamed, and alone. And those are the exact feelings we should be striving to avoid right now, given this country’s adolescent mental health crisis. Kids today need health education as much as they need math and science. They need honest information about their own bodies and minds, and they need it earlier than ever before. But far too often, they’re just not getting it.

In the U.S., only 21% of elementary schools, currently provide puberty education. And just 29 states and Washington, DC, mandate sex education in schools. Even worse, only 15 of those states require the content to be evidence-informed, medically accurate, and complete — and only 11 require LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed. The result? A 2021 survey found that 74% of adolescent girls have questions about their periods, and more than 40% felt confused and unprepared for their first period.

More than half of adults have periods, so let’s say so. In our own homes, we talk about periods like we talk about all bodily functions — openly, honestly, and with some humor thrown in. We’ll often ask one of our kids to grab us a tampon, and we’ve even repurposed tampons for first aid — they work great for bloody noses — and explained their original purpose while doing it. We’ve made period kits for our daughters (just simple small bags with a mix of pads, period underwear, and pain meds). We’ve put them in their bathrooms and in their backpacks. We’ve also started suggesting that our daughters wear period underwear, even on days they don’t have their periods, just in case.

Over the years, we’ve garnered a bit of a reputation for talking openly about some of these topics, so our friends and our kids' friends often come to us for information. These are the most common questions about periods that kids want to know so as parents, you should get your answers ready. Need some help? Here's our cheat sheet:

Q: How will I know when my period is going to start?

A: No one knows. The scientific answer is about two years after you start to develop breast buds, but every person is different. The best we can do is know that it’s definitely going to happen eventually and be as prepared as we can with knowledge and supplies when it does.

Q: Is it going to hurt?

A: It can make you feel a little crampy, but a heating pad, exercise, and medicine can help.

Q: How much blood is it?

A: Your first period will most likely be very light and short (maybe even just a stain). And it probably won’t come monthly for a year or more.

Q: Will people know I got my period?

A: Not unless you tell them. You won’t look any different the day before and the day after your first period. Nothing will change about your outward appearance, and no one can tell just by looking at you.

Q: What happens if it comes when I’m in school? (This is the question kids always want to be fleshed out with the most detail possible — preparing mentally for lots of scenarios seems to take the scary out of the possibilities).

A: You’ll keep a period kit in your bag, so you always have supplies. If your regular underwear is dirty, don’t try to sneak them back into your bag; just throw them out and put on period underwear. Yes, really. It’s less laundry for us, and it’s just one pair. If you have a stain on your clothes, tie your hoodie or your jacket around your waist to hide it. Worst case scenario, if all of that fails and you find yourself in a blood bath out of a horror movie, just go to the nurse and tell them you need to call me. I’ll come to get you, and we’ll make a better plan for tomorrow.

If your tweens have more questions about menstruation, you might want to mention it to your school. Talk to the principal, the teachers, and the nurse. Ask about when health classes will start or what sex ed curriculum your school uses. And at the same time, try your best to answer your kids’ questions simply and directly. You can find some pretty good resources online, like the videos by Amaze. There are also a few books specifically about periods like It’s Perfectly Normal, Go With the Flow, Revenge of the Red Club, and The Moon Within—and less overt books where a character just gets her period, but it’s not the entire premise, like Other Words for Home. And, of course, you know we’ll be taking our own kids to see the classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, coming to the big screen in April.

Keeley McNamara, a certified nurse midwife, and Jen Swetzoff, a writer and editor, are both parents of tweens and the co-founders of Anyway, a new magazine focusing on health, wellbeing, and culture for kids 9-15. Find them at and on Instagram @anywaymag.

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