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‘Embrace the feminine’: Empowering girls to manage their periods

MyGirlsGynae initiative provides guidance to families and says a positive approach is vital

At the age of 13 and week one of my first year of secondary school, with new surroundings and a strict timetable, I got my first period. The cramps appeared thick and fast, and a tight crawling pain travelled from my back and fell down my thighs.

The timing was not ideal, considering I wasn’t too sure where the bathrooms were and whether or not I could go to sick bay for a sanitary towel or a hot water bottle, or if the pain got so bad could I opt out of French. I was not used to the rules of a menstrual cycle and had yet to make that one good friend I could confide in. Navigating a new school and routine was hard enough without periods complicating the matter.

This was 1996, and I’m relieved that attitudes, products and teenage understanding have significantly moved on. Now, a parent of daughters, my husband and I are both conscious of preparing for the inevitable. I have already gathered a box of necessary supplies, even though we are possibly a few years off from needing to gift them. But what I am most conscious of is how to help our daughters understand their bodies, to know what is normal and what needs attention and how to make the most of their menstrual cycle which is much more than a five-to-seven-day bleed.

We are still breaking through the taboo and stigma of periods with a lot of misinformation continuing to do the rounds, causing anxiety, upset and worry for teenagers at a time when they are already in a state of flux with adolescent vulnerability. What is needed is reliable, evidence-based information to alleviate unnecessary anxiety about normal variations in adolescent gynae physiology.


Consultant adolescent gynaecologist Dr Geraldine Connolly and Ayurvedic therapist Paula Herbert offer this kind of support with MyGirlsGynae, after recognising a gap in the market in providing guidance for both teenagers and their parents. They provide practical information through in-person and online courses about what is normal in adolescent gynaecology and what needs assessment and management.

The way we live our lives influences all aspects of our health. The reproductive system is one of the first systems to go out of kilter when lifestyle is suboptimal. Examples of this is the disappearance of periods during especially stressful events such as exams or significant weight changes. MyGirlsGynae provides easy-to-apply techniques to help regulate the menstrual cycle and make it more manageable.

“While many of the patients I have seen have significant gynae issues, I have come to believe that by the time many young girls present to the gynaecologist, we have missed an opportunity to ensure a healthy reproductive system,” says Connolly. “The problem and the girl become medicalised at a young age, and this can set up a lifetime of difficulty.”

Coming from a generation that did not celebrate or feel empowered by their period can make supporting teenagers a little trickier. We are likely to be still somewhat consumed by the stigma and secrecy of periods and find the conversation difficult or embarrassing. I will admit that it wasn’t until I was 35, a whole 22 years of already experiencing a monthly menstrual cycle as a hushed and painfully private thing, that I began to reconsider my cycle and slow down when I needed to, create when I was inspired and paint the garden fences when my energy was booming. Periods are no longer this thing to dread because I know what my body and mind need at every stage of my cycle. And if I can pass that mindset on to our daughters and reframe the narrative around periods, perhaps they won’t be in their mid-30s and realise that their period does not control their life.

“There is no doubt that our daughters learn by example,” says Herbert. “If we, as mothers, practise great self-care, our young daughters are far more likely to follow in our footsteps. This will have a very positive impact on not only their menstrual cycle but all aspects of their future health. Our cycle is a great indication of general health. If we can tune into the different phases of our cycle, we can understand our bodies and minds so much better.

“If mothers can do this and honour how they are feeling by taking, for example, extra rest on the first couple of days of their period or practising gentle yoga or reducing the intake of specific foods, we can change the whole story around menstruation for not only our daughters but for generations to come.”

“A positive approach is vital,” says Connolly. “Even if your own experience has been difficult, it is not helpful to share all the details, as it programmes your daughter to experience the same difficulties. If your daughter does experience similar problems, you are in a unique position to empathise and facilitate getting professional help.”

Banishing the negative narratives around periods means we can empower girls to manage their periods. This may mean changing the view of the parent as well as the daughter, encouraging open discussions with dads as well as mums, not hiding pads or sanitary wear and exploring the vast array of new options for period wear, including reusable pads, period underwear, period swimwear and menstrual cups.

It means keeping an open mind, bringing awareness and understanding into the family around how the menstrual cycle and having a period can affect mood and energy, and ensuring teenagers recognise how normal and incredibly natural a period is and how it affects them throughout the month and not just when they bleed.

“Share your own knowledge and experience of periods with your daughter,” says Herbert when discussing how best to empower girls. “Learn about what is to be expected and what is not normal. Be her ally when she is premenstrual and having her period, and be aware of the effect the different phases of the menstrual cycle and hormonal fluctuations can have on our energy, which can inform the way we interact with our social and work and sporting lives.”

Girls are often likely to get their period at a similar age to their mothers, which can give us a roundabout time to consider when to discuss periods and gynae issues with our daughters. But Connolly advises not imposing the conversation on an unwilling subject, but to leave the door open for further discussion and questions later. Many versions of the conversation may be necessary as daughters mature.

And Herbert reminds us to “introduce the whole concept in a positive and welcoming manner, embrace the feminine! Lose the shame and secrecy.”

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family