Talking about puberty and periods is daunting enough without the added complexities that come when the child has physical and/or intellectual disabilities. Disabilities and the resulting challenges vary and include restrictions in mobility, reduced visual and auditory, speech, and cognitive capabilities.
Girls and women with disabilities experience periods and menstruation differently and often more negatively compared to their non-disabled counterparts. Regardless of their disabilities, it is important to keep in mind that disabled children go through the same physical changes in puberty as their non-disabled counterparts. Here are some tips on talking about periods with children with disabilities.
No One-size-fits-all approach
There’s no singular winning way of talking to your child about all the changes in puberty including periods. You need to think about your child and how they best learn or relate to things and then from there devise a way of communicating it to them. A way customized just for them. For some children pictures work best, for others cartoons or books that form an introduction of sorts before you delve deeper.
Prepare yourself in advance
Evaluate your own views on periods to make sure that you don’t risk perpetuating negative societal views about the changes women go through during puberty, most notably the beginning of periods. The idea is to set a healthy tone that is free of shame, judgment, and stigma.
Prepare by doing your own research especially if you are not living with a similar disability. Their experience is likely to be significantly different from your own. Find resources such as storyboards that can explain things like their changing bodies and personal stories about how other people with their specific disability manage it. Also, find about any resources specific to their needs for you and them such as menstruation kits for the blind.
If they go to school, find out what the school has in place if any to support girls on their periods. Do they offer assistance in placing pads for students with special needs? Do they give pads and other sanitary supplies if the child has none at the time? Depending on the school, especially if it specializes in special needs children, consider telling the teachers and nurses when your child’s period starts so they can be aware and ready to help if there’s a need. Also, consider leaving pads in the school office for your daughter.
Menstruation challenges faced by people with disabilities
Girls and women with disabilities have more frequent reports of dysmenorrhea (painful periods), menorrhagia (heavy periods), menstrual hygiene issues, and mood behavioral changes linked to PMS.
- They are less likely to get information relevant to their situation with existing education not including their needs.
- They are more likely to face challenges in accessing sufficient resources and support.
- Maintaining menstrual hygiene can be difficult especially for those with limited physical abilities.
- They may also face further discrimination and stigma while on their period.
Speak to a doctor about pain medication and other ways of alleviating period-related discomfort.
Start the conversation early and be patient. It will take some children longer to understand the changes you are describing which is why it’s critical that you start early. Girls begin to get their periods anywhere from 9 to 16 years old so determine when the best time to start is for your child. It’s extremely important that they are not surprised by it without sufficient preparation. It can be scary for any little girl but especially frightening for a child with disabilities.
Go for many small chats about puberty and periods instead of one big sit-down. It’s less scary and easier to understand when broken down into smaller chunks. Create an environment where the child feels safe to raise questions. Listen to their concerns and do not minimize them especially if you do not have a similar disability. Let them know that you are open to talking about it anytime they have a question or concern.
Talk about what they can expect before and during their periods including PMS without focusing on the extremes like pain, instead emphasizing that all these changes are normal, and all girls go through it. Take your time explaining the emotional and mood changes she may experience. If she is nervous, let her know that that is all normal too, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Symptoms of PMS
- Bloating and weight gain
- Problems sleeping
- Mood swings
- Appetite changes
- Cramps in the lower belly
- Pimples and acne breakouts
- Tender breasts or swelling
- Vaginal discharge which is usually yellowish or white
- Joint and muscle pain
Show her how to use sanitary products
Depending on your child’s abilities, buy some menstrual hygiene products and explain how to use them. The preferred options are tampons and pads.
Show and tell
Buy some, look at them together at home and demonstrate how to use them. Suggest wearing one so they can get used to how it feels even before their periods start. This is especially important for girls with sensory issues. Be open to experimenting with different brands so that they select the one that feels most comfortable.
Discuss changing and discarding
Positioning and changing pads can be difficult especially if the disability is physical. Some parents send the girls to school with the pads already in place. Another tip regarding positioning is to draw around the pad on the underwear with a pen, offering a visual guideline.
Discuss the importance of changing the pads or tampons as well as how and where to throw them away. Some parents advise changing the pad every time you use your bathroom on your period to make it easier for the child. Others choose to use nighttime pads during the day because they last longer. Use visual aids if it helps, just not anything too messy. Also, consider investing in black underwear especially for days when they are on their period.
Expect the unexpected
Even after doing your best to explain over a long period of time complete with resources that work best for your child, there are no assurances or guarantees about how they will respond to their periods.
One parent of a child living with disabilities enrolled her child in a class about puberty and changes then regularly talked about it at home yet when the girl’s periods started, she was very upset and emotional about it like she had no idea it was going to happen.
Stopping the periods
Medically stopping the periods altogether is highly contested with some arguing that it is not done in the best interest of the disabled person but for the convenience of the caretakers. You have to determine what is right in your specific case.
Depending on your child’s abilities, you may consider stopping the periods altogether. The general rule of thumb is if she can go to the bathroom on her own, she can manage her periods on her own. For some parents, stopping the periods is the best choice for the child. This is the case for people whose periods are characterized by severe pain, excessive bleeding, and excessive anxiety. in some cases, periods may even trigger seizures if your daughter has epilepsy.
This is justifiably a sensitive issue. But you need to think about whether or not you want to put your daughter on birth control once her periods start. Girls and women living with disabilities are highly vulnerable to sexual assault. The figures range from 40%-83% of adult women with disabilities are sexually abused or raped. Some parents while doing everything to keep their daughters safe also put them on birth control to protect them even further from pregnancy in the event of the worst… If you’re considering it, this is something you need to talk to a doctor about before starting.
No school days
I have an adult friend who does not go to work on her period. At all. She’s high enough up the ladder to negotiate such things which the majority of us are not. However, do not hesitate to keep your child out of school if she has cramps or is emotionally struggling with her period or whatever other reason. Her body’s changing and that’s a lot. She could use a break and that’s all the explanation required.
Get the rest of the family involved
It’s important to get the rest of the family including the male members involved. This normalizes periods as a normal part of life and growing up. It creates a safe environment where everyone in the home is able to assist if there is a need. There’s also the added benefit of living with a rare species of men who understand periods and are kind and gentle when it comes to addressing the subject.