1. Check your own opinion about periods. "In the history of talking about periods there are all sorts of words like 'curse' and 'suck,'" ays Julie Metzger, R.N., M.N., co-founder of Great Conversations, an organization based in the Pacific Northwest that offers classes for parents and pre-teens about puberty, sexual reproduction, and sexuality. But even if that's how you feel about Aunt Flo, "check in with that storytelling," before discussing the details with your girl, recommends Metzger, "because there's a lot about periods that have to do with really amazing and wonderful things like fertility and the opportunity to have a baby."
Instead, consider the fact that you have the opportunity to "communicate a different kind of story to your daughter about what it means to grow up, what it means to be a woman, what it means when our body changes, what it means to have a normal healthy body that's working well," adds the co-author of Will Puberty Last My Whole Life?
Plus, even if your experiences with periods have been sucky, it doesn't mean your daughter's will be.
2. De-mystify the physical details. "There's this real perception that life is limited by having a period," says Cara Natterson, M.D., pediatrician and author of The Care and Keeping of You series. "Emphasize that this is not a disease: 'Don't think this is a window each month when you're going to be sick.' The biggest message about having your period is you can do almost everything you can do on a day you don't have your period. To empower girls in that way is really important."
Next, Dr. Natterson suggests reducing the fear of blood. "Girls are imagining there is free-flowing blood gushing out of their bodies,'" she says. "Explain that it's not like any form of bleeding she's had before. I explain that your uterus is about the size of your closed fist, and the lining of your uterus is just the inside of that fist. When you get your period over the course of several days, that lining of old blood and tissue slowly comes out of your body. Usually it's only about three tablespoons of blood total. When you show them in a cup what three tablespoons is, they realize it's not a lot."
3. Explore period supplies together, from pads and tampons to period panties to subscription services like MyLola.com, which even sells a first period kit. "I can't imagine buying a single thing without taking my daughter with me," Metzger says. "Explain how there are several options for protecting her clothes when she gets her period—even some you haven't tried yourself—and ask if she wants to go look at some together."
For girls who resist talking about it, Metzger suggests another approach: "You can say, 'I know it's hard for you to connect about this, so just so you know, I got some supplies and they're in the downstairs bathroom. I'd love to talk them over if you need, but feel free to go through it so you know what's there.'"
4. Be hands on with how to use the supplies. "Girls are often afraid of the materials they use to deal with the period," Dr. Natterson says. "Pads come with the fear of not working or leaking, or just, 'Is it gross?' Tampons are terrifying to girls. They're inserting something into their bodies." So the first step is teaching your girl how to use a pad, when to change it, and basic hygiene.
Next, if you're daughter says she's ready, she can try tampons. "I always want kids to read something before they put a tampon in, whether it's the package insert in the box or a guide in a book," Dr. Natterson says. Whether you want to be in the room or not as your daughter learns how to use a tampon is up to you and her. "Some moms are really comfortable being in the bathroom showing their daughters, and that's ideal," Dr. Natterson says. "By being in there, what you're saying with your actions is that there's nothing gross or creepy or inappropriate about this. Some moms are more comfortable on the other side of the door."
5. Empower her to handle the logistics. "Describing what a period is takes me three minutes, but describing the logistics of a period—how to manage it, how not to be surprised by it, how to use tampons or pads, what to do if you start in school, what to do if you're a swimmer, how to build a pad out of toilet paper when you don't have any supplies—that can take two hours," Metzger says.
"Leaks are the No. 1 question in the classes I teach," Dr. Natterson says. "The biggest lesson is be prepared for the mishaps. When you're younger, periods take you by surprise. A girl can have a little pouch in her backpack with a clean pair of underwear and a couple extra pads and even a pair of shorts or leggings as an emergency kit. Girls should be given permission to never have to worry about how they're going to manage their periods."
"Also, explain that it's really hard to ignore the physical sensations of moisture that go along with having a period for long enough that you're going to be sitting in a puddle of blood in a chair," Dr. Natterson says. "When we're talking about leaking, we're talking about a small amount. That's a big relief to girls, because they imagine it very differently than what we mean."
6. Avoid focusing on any negative symptoms she may not even have. "Don't jump in there with a laundry list of things that some people find uncomfortable," Dr. Natterson says. "On the other hand, cramps, bloating, breast tenderness, and mood swings are real."
Your best bet is to just address these issues as they come up. "If your daughter has just got her period and she has her hands on her belly and is not that hungry, you can ask, 'Are you feeling queasy?' You might be having cramps. Is this how it feels?'" Dr. Natterson says. "Address it in context, put names to symptoms, and offer the tools to deal with them."
7. Get the men in your life involved in the conversation. "There are so many ways dads can participate," Metzger says. "Even if they've never had a period, they've done almost everything else on the puberty list—gotten taller, put on weight, had pimples, grown new hair, had B.O., experienced being viewed differently or being embarrassed by the changes," Metzger says. "Plus, we want our daughters to be able to tell Dad she needs to run back inside because she forgot her tampons without feeling embarrassed or that she needs to be secretive about it."
And don't forget to talk about periods with sons, too! "To change the world, let's talk to our sons about periods in a way that normalizes it," Metzger says.
8. Teach girls to have each other's backs. "Part of this education is teaching girls they're on the same team," Dr. Natterson says. "They're going to experience periods and they're going to have mishaps and leakage. If you see it in someone else, have her back, even someone who's not a good friend. Say, 'Hey, follow me to the bathroom,' or hand her a sweatshirt and tell her to tie it around their waist. Do something you would want someone to do for you."
9. Remind her that other women have periods, too. It sounds obvious, but it's worth pointing out."Olympic athletes have periods," Metzger says. "Beyonce, periods. Women in space, periods. Women in a jungle, periods. Women doing science experiments, women writing prize-winning literature, your teacher, your parent, your aunt—they're all having periods. Being a part of that story makes you a female human being—and that's cool."