A new study about girls and the early onset of menstruation is reason enough for parents to have those tough sex convos now!
When a girl first gets her period can impact the timing of her first sexual encounter, according to a new study out of Columbia University (published in the journal PLOS ONE). But parents, maybe you'd better sit down, because that's not all. Researchers also say the onset of menstruation can affect the timing of a girl's first pregnancy, her vulnerability to contracting some sexually transmitted infections, and even the age she marries.
"Menstruation marks the beginning of a girl's reproductive life and is an important indicator of girls' physical, nutritional, and reproductive health, yet it is often overlooked in public health," commented Marni Sommer, DrPH, MSN.
Her team looked at girls in Malawi, South Africa, Nepal, Jamaica, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, India, and Bangladesh for this study, but it's important to note that similar outcomes have been observed in high-income countries such as the U.S. Overall, the research shows that early menstruation, which is defined as before the age of 12, is found to be associated with early sexual debut, experiences of sexual advances from older men, early pregnancy and childbirth, sexual risk-taking, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
"Ultimately this reinforces the importance of including age of menarche in many more studies," Dr. Sommer said.
Of course, we can't control when our daughters will begin their periods. But for parents, the takeaway seems to be that we need to be having conversations with our girls about sex earlier rather than later.
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Ahem, this can be uncomfortable territory for many parents (and kids!). Here are some tips from Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say, for approaching what can definitely be a delicate topic:
- Emphasize the value of sex by saying it's what adults, who know one another very well, do when they love each other very deeply.
- Use real language rather than letting embarrassment take over. For instance, saying the words "vagina" and "penis" is better than hinting at these body parts and leaving your child with questions.
- Don't refuse to talk about certain things with your kids, which only sends them the message that they can't come to you for advice and guidance.
Colleen O'Grady, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the author Dial Down the Drama: Reducing Conflict and Reconnecting with Your Teenage Daughter, says her daughter started menstruating at age 10 and was taller than her by age 11. "She was tall, blonde, and well developed—I can tell you it wasn't easy," she told Parents.com.
O'Grady, who has more than 25 years experience as a family therapist, offers the following tips for parents in a similar situation:
- Educate her about sexting and its consequences. O’Grady says this is the No. 1 way she sees young girls fall into sexual deep waters. “Many girls I’ve talked to didn’t think it was wrong to do because they weren’t doing it in person. Talk to your daughter about how to respond if a boy pressures her to send an inappropriate picture. Often girls don’t know how to respond to the bullying or manipulation.”
- Be clear about what you think is appropriate or inappropriate for her to wear when it comes to clothes and makeup. “These girls are dressing the part that they see in music videos and magazines,” according to O’Grady. “They need to be educated about what their clothes are saying.” She suggests parents read So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids by Diane E. Levin Ph.D. and Jean Kilbourne Ed.D.
- Don’t underestimate the power of Dad. “Dads can have a very positive influence on their daughters when it comes to sexuality,” O’Grady said. “He can give her the message about what true love is and what respecting a girl looks like. He can tell his daughter the difference between true beauty and being sexually objectified. He can tell his daughter how beautiful she is in her shorts and T-shirt while she is playing soccer, or when she is being kind to her brother.”
- Teach her how to set boundaries. “Many girls become sexually active because they have been pressured into it,” O’Grady said. “These girls need the words and they need to know what to do in specific scenarios, like when a boy pushes the boundaries in the movie theater.”
If you still aren't sure how to have the conversations you need to be having, consider involving your child's pediatrician. Most importantly, remember you don't have to do it perfectly. What you don't want is for your daughter to learn about sex from friends first. Instead, be the one who she can trust and confide in for many years to come!