Updated: Mar 12, 2019
If you had to tell your daughter - or any young girl - the most valuable pieces of information about her cycles, what would you say?
Would it be that periods are a normal part of life? That everyone gets PMS sometimes and it's okay to feel emotional? Or that having cycles helps you tune into yourself?
As a Coming of Age mentor, I find all of the above helpful in creating a comfortable atmosphere around cycles.
However, there are some specifics that are often left out of the conversation around cycles that I'd love to share with you. These tips will enable you to understand teen cycle health in deeper detail.
1. Cervical fluid is a healthy secretion that tells us when we are fertile
The body lets us know when we are fertile and about to ovulate via an amazing substance that comes from inside the cervix, called cervical fluid. Leading up to ovulation, the cervix (the bottom part of the uterus that meets the vagina) begins to secrete a very wet, clear, and often slippery fluid so that sperm can stay alive until ovulation occurs. It is easy to identify and is the #1 sign of fertility. When girls know what it is, they can identify when their body is preparing to ovulate.
Knowing that this "clear flow" signifies fertility will inform their reproductive health for the rest of their lives, whether it's someday planning to conceive, tracking their ovulation, or identifying abnormal changes in secretions. So many girls and teens believe they have an infection when what they are seeing is merely cervical fluid. Teaching them what cervical fluid should look like helps them distinguish between healthy secretions and unhealthy discharge (by the way, I never refer to normal cervical and vaginal secretions as "discharge"; that word is better applied to infections and other abnormal, unhealthy secretions)
Fertile cervical fluid stretched between two fingers
2. Painful periods are NOT normal
Over the years I've heard plenty of ideas about period pain that worry me, such as "that's just a sign your uterus is functioning normally" and "it's part of being a girl and trains you for giving birth someday."
Yikes! Terrible cramps are not a sign that your uterus is functioning well, nor are they your body's way of "training" you for childbirth. Painful periods are often a sign that something is not right and needs attention.
While it's expected that girls and teens will have periods that are on the heavy side (as well as unpredictable and wonky cycles in general), there is a point at which discomfort no longer falls inside the parameters of normal. If your daughter (or you!) is doubled over with pain, nauseous, weak, dizzy, or feels like she's going to faint, that is absolutely not normal. So what's going on? It could be that dietary changes need to be made, for example, cutting out refined foods and upping intake of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Lifestyle factors could be at work, such as stress, not enough sleep, or lack of emotional support. Environmental stressors also contribute to period pain such as exposure to toxins (a post on treating period pain is in the works, so check back soon). Or it may be an actual condition that needs treatment, such as endometriosis or adenomyosis - problems that are currently widely under-diagnosed and not talked about as often as they should be. Both conditions present with deep, severe menstrual pain as well as pain during bowel movements, sex, and/or urination, lower back pain, and pelvic pressure.
3. Irregular periods are completely normal for adolescents and teens
Our cycles are created by a very complex hormonal feedback loop between the brain and the ovaries, and the body needs many years to develop and perfect this system. Ovulation does not usually occur in the cycles of girls ages 12-14, and even by age 18 ovulation is not occurring in the majority of cycles. A young girl NEEDS to have irregular cycles while her body works to grow this extremely complex new system. If by age 18 your daughter is still having cycles that are shorter than 21 days or longer than 35 days and/or she goes more than 3 months between periods, or if she has not started menstruating by age 16, she should have an evaluation by a healthcare professional.
4. Your cycle is a reflection of your self and your life
We often think that our cycles exist on their own, without rhyme or reason, and that our reproductive organs are not really tied in to the rest of the body. What we feel, eat, think, drink, and how we live is ALL reflected in the health of our cycles. Introduce your daughter to the idea that everything in the body, mind, and spirit is connected. For example, eating junk food will make her uterus accumulate too many cramp-creating chemicals, her love of dance will help tone her pelvic floor (leading to better cycles), and her insane giggle fests relieve stress and boost progesterone levels. Our wombs, ovaries, hormones, fallopian tubes, cervixes, and pelvic floors are all influenced by and respond to our lifestyle habits, and that is pretty darn fascinating!
5. Charting your cycles gives you a TON of information
People of all ages with a natural cycle (meaning no method of hormonal birth control is being used) can benefit from charting their cycles in one form or another. Keeping track of changes that occur throughout the cycle helps us identify patterns that we might otherwise miss, such as what food cravings mean, or that the bit of spotting we see is actually linked to other symptoms.
Learning to observe and chart primary fertility signs gives us more in-depth information about our cycles than any test, app, or gadget, and it's free! Girls and teens can track their cervical fluid changes throughout the day and take their temperature first thing in the morning, then record their findings on a chart. In doing so, they understand their personal patterns, hormonal health, ovulation, and learn what's normal for them.
Fertility Awareness is a skill that girls and teens will take with them the rest of their lives, informing their choices around birth control, family planning, and gynecological health, all the way up to menopause. Girls are curious and LOVE to experiment with cool stuff! Charting her body's fertility signs and getting to see the amazing art-like pattern created on a cycle chart could be fascinating and exciting for your daughter (and incredible to do in tandem with you, if you'd like to chart your cycles too).
There are many ways she could track her cycles if doing Fertility Awareness isn't her thing. Below is an example of a youth cycle chart. Click here to download a free blank version.