Why dads need to talk to their daughter about her period

Ah yes, the jumper trick.
Ah yes, the jumper trick. Photo: Shutterstock

Dolly magazine and a couple of excruciatingly embarrassing "personal development" classroom sessions taught me what I needed to know about periods when I was a pre-teen. I went to mum for supplies but, even though I had a close relationship with my dad, I wouldn't have dreamed of talking to him about it. I just wanted to get through the day without bleeding on my school uniform and without being doubled-over with cramps.

Talking openly about periods is still not something many of us do easily or particularly enthusiastically. And the thought of having a conversation with our dads about it – well, I think I just felt the collective shudder of a thousand women.

So when a single dad friend of mine recently told me that he'd had a chat to his 10-year-old daughter about getting her first period I was pretty curious about it. And admiring – of him, and of his daughter for addressing this traditionally embarrassing topic so frankly.

"I knew she understood what getting her period meant in theory," he tells me, "but I wanted to make sure she was prepared in a practical sense as well and knew she could call on me for help if she needed it. I didn't want her to feel embarrassed or helpless or like she had to hide it from me."

Was it terribly embarrassing for you or for her? "Nah, not really. We both admitted straight up that it was bit awkward and had a laugh about it and that really diffused it. And she's still pretty young – I think it's easier talking to a pre-teen about this stuff than to a full on teenager." Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer agrees that around Year 4 is a good time to start having conversations about puberty and body changes especially as menstruation is tending to start earlier for girls in western cultures with the average age now around 12.5. "The longer children have to understand the processes", she explains, "the less of a surprise they are, especially when discussed in an open, respectful way."

"We put together a little period pack for her to keep in her school bag," my friend tells me. "A couple of pads and some spare undies. And I told her about the jumper trick." The jumper trick? "Yeah, you know - where you can tie your jumper around your waist if you're worried about a stain on your uniform. She was stoked with that – thought it was a brilliant idea!" Ah yes, the jumper trick. Familiar to many a teenage girl and now being passed down from dads to daughters!

Another friend, who is together with the mum of their kids, says it wouldn't occur to him to have that conversation with his daughter. "I'd be happy to talk about it – I guess I just assume there's no way she'd want to talk to me about it. I thought it would be something she'd just want to discuss with her mum."

Jocelyn Brewer suggests, however, that it's totally appropriate for dads to either have these conversations with their daughters one-on-one or at least to be in on the discussion – if their daughter feels ok about it. "It removes the sense of secrecy around menstruation and builds the girls' confidence around talking about normal bodily processes in a respectful and loving way." It's true, of course, that a woman is likely to have a better handle on the logistics of dealing with tampons, pads, menstrual cups and the like, but there's no reason for dads not to get in on the subject in a supportive way too if that feels helpful. This normalisation of conversations around potentially embarrassing subjects will be increasingly important down the line when kids really need to trust that they can seek advice and support on any of a range of challenges that come up for them without fear of shame or judgement.

I ask my mate what he'd say to dads who want to talk to their daughters about menstruation but are feeling nervous about it? "Have a laugh about it with her! And don't wait – do it sooner rather than later and keep being willing to talk about the awkward stuff. I want my kid to know I'm there for her about anything she wants to talk about. Anything. And anyway, a bit of embarrassment or awkwardness is not the end of the world especially if it means helping to make our daughters feel empowered and confident."

Brewer concurs: "It's great role modelling to show that nothing really bad happens when you talk about something tricky, and it actually feels terrific once the words are out."

So while most dads and daughters might not be sitting around the kitchen table casually chatting about tampons and PMT, it is definitely a subject that need not be off limits for fathers in the way in once was. Take a deep a breath, dads. It could be one of the best conversations you ever have with your daughter.