I want you to imagine that you are 9 years old.
You don’t really like the sight of blood and got quite distressed when you scraped your knee recently and saw the trickle of blood that came from the wound. And then one day, when you go to the toilet at school, you look down and see the unmistakable sign of blood on your underwear. You don’t know where it has come from: you haven’t hurt yourself; there is no pain anywhere; and there was no warning at all. When you wipe yourself you see that the blood has come from your vagina. You can’t talk to your mum about it, as she doesn’t cope with conversations about bodies or genitals. You worry that you might have cancer, and that worry increases when the bleeding continues for the next 4 days. You don’t know how to deal with all the blood-stained underwear and clothes, so you keep them in a plastic bag under your bed. When it finally stops you are relieved, but it remains a nagging worry.
In my experience it is quite common for children and young people to experience the bodily changes of puberty without understanding what they are, such as a17-year-old young man I saw in the sexual health clinic who attended thinking he had a urinary tract infection. In fact there was nothing wrong with him at all, he was just having wet dreams.
This is not something that should happen to anyone, but unfortunately it still does. The Sex Education Forum ran an online survey with over 2000 young people aged 11-25 in November — December 2015. This found that 1 in 4 (24%) female respondents did not learn about periods before they started having periods, and a staggering 50% of young people had not learnt about wet dreams. (38% of respondents identifying as male has not learnt about wet dreams before experiencing them)
Unfortunately the situation doesn’t seem to have improved much. In 2018 we surveyed over 1000 young people in one area of London and, of those respondents that identified as having periods, 27% had not learned about them before they started. Surely this figure should be going down, not up?
The usual age for periods to start is between the ages of 10 and 15, with an average age of 12, but a significant minority will start before the age of 9. Therefore, to avoid any child starting their period without knowing what they are, they should learn about them at the very latest when they are 8 or 9. This fact has been recognised by the government, and their draft guidance on RSE and Health Education states:
85. “Puberty should be covered in Health Education and should be addressed before onset so, as far as possible, pupils are prepared in advance for changes they will experience”
In fact I would argue that there is no reason that children should not learn about periods, and other changes that happen to the body during puberty, even sooner than that. That way they will have a greater understanding of what will happen to them when it does, not to mention that they may have older brothers or sisters at home who are grappling with these issues already. And of course all children, girls and boys included, should be taught about periods, just as all children should be taught the full range of physical and emotional changes that can happen at puberty. This is just one way of ensuring that relationships and sex education is truly inclusive.
Children also need sufficiently detailed information to recognise the diversity of experiences around puberty, for example the fact that it can be up to 14 months from a first period until the menstrual cycle becomes regular. This can make it very difficult for a child to predict when their next period will start and demonstrates how important it is for them to be able to access a bathroom whenever they need to. Schools can consider their whole-school approach with help from the #PeriodPositive campaign and resources, which is run by one of our partners.
To support schools to provide high quality puberty education – at both primary and secondary level, the Sex Education Forum produced The Puberty Issue, which contains more tips and links to resources.
I provide more in-depth support with teaching about sexual health, including puberty, contraception and STIs, through the ‘Teaching Positive Sexual Health’ course which is next running on 12th February 2019.
Alternatively, if you would like to commission the course for your school or local authority, please get in touch.
Senior Trainer, Sex Education Forum