Body changes, periods and puberty: Tips for single dads with daughters

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"Validation of the girl child from a male parent has a lasting impression on her personal value and raises confidence levels." Photo: Getty Images
"Validation of the girl child from a male parent has a lasting impression on her personal value and raises confidence levels." Photo: Getty Images

While it may seem obvious to some, research has also shown that fathers are just as important as mothers in the development and well-being of their children.

It is argued that paternal presence assists in children's cognitive development, nullifies the need for compensatory masculine attention and ensures strict relationship rules for daughters with the opposite sex.

Dr Sibusiso Mkwananzi during an interview with News24, adding "therefore, validation of the girl child from a male parent has a lasting impression on her value and raises confidence levels." 

A demographer and senior researcher at the Institute of Gender Studies in UNISA, Dr Mkwananzi completed an undergraduate degree in dentistry, and based on her knowledge as a health practitioner she offers insights to fathers raising daughters. 

Read: New information: Can the Covid-19 vaccine change your menstrual cycle? This is what we found

Understand age-appropriate talks

"It is important for parents, regardless of sex, to understand that simple and casual age-appropriate talks about sexuality and reproductive hygiene are imperative with their children from as early an age as possible," Dr Mkwananzi stresses. 

"Parents need to talk to their children about having boundaries as early as age two," she adds.

Dr Mkwananzi says that parents need to tell their children when it is appropriate to be naked, who can touch their body and when this is not acceptable, and include that the child can refuse this attention - and who they can report this to.

She adds that such talks could be reinforced by allowing children to wash their private parts from the age of 3 upwards and reminding them that only they should touch these parts, which is why they have to clean themselves there.

Alert the child of the body changes

Dr Mkwananzi says that it is essential to alert the child that their body is going to change, before they begin showing signs of puberty, and that when this happens, it should not alarm or scare them because that is normal and has happened to everyone around them.

She says that the dads can use examples of people around their daughters like their aunts, older cousins, or other older girls and women to reassure their daughters that this is normal.

"Part of these changes will be that their bodies will be able to prepare itself to have a baby and if a baby is not made then the lining prepared for baby is shed, and this comes out of one's vagina, or another more subtle term that the child is already used to the parent using to refer to their private parts," added Dr Mkwananzi.

She says that parents need to assure their children that this is not a bad experience but a beautiful and normal experience of growing up. 

Parents can tell their children that if this happens at home, they need to prepare for it and have something ready for the child to collect the blood.

Also read: Ever wondered if your period is 'normal' or why your cycle changed after having a baby?

Excuse yourself from class

Parents need to tell their children what to do if their period arrives while they are at school, and things get messier, says Dr Mkwananzi.

Dr Mkwananzi says that parents must also share with their children that if this happens at school or in public, they must speak to the nearest teacher and not be embarrassed if they bleed onto their school dress or skirt.  

She says that they can explain to their child that at this point, they'd need to tie a jersey around their waist, excuse themselves from class, and speak to the teacher for help because that would mean that their period has started.

"Additionally, many young girls suffer from period pains, and so the parent needs to explain that if the pain does occur, then the child should take some pain killers."

"The conversation should be ended by allowing the child to ask any questions and reassuring the child that they are loved and accepted as they are and that they have not done anything wrong for this to happen to them," adds Dr Mkwananzi.

Mothers who want to start the period talk with their daughters would have to take the above advice. However, she says that the mom would refer to herself and other older girls and women who experienced such body changes.

"It is important for fathers to become comfortable about periods and period hygiene for themselves regardless of the age of their daughters," says Dr Mkwananzi.

Normalise hygiene conversations

Dr Mkwananzi says that fathers must normalise the idea of reproductive hygiene first so that such conversations can be less overwhelming.

"This makes it important for fathers to realise the importance of speaking about sexuality, contraception, relationships with males and other reproductive issues with their daughters in a simple non-judgmental manner," adds Dr Mkwananzi.

In preparation for the first period, Dr Mkwananzi says that it may be wise for the father to inform his daughter, during the talks about her period, that she will need to start buying pads or tampons.

These will be kept with the other toiletries in the pantry or storage cupboard, so that whenever she starts her period, she can go to the pantry and get herself what she needs.

"Later on, when she is older and perhaps has an allowance of her own or is bought toiletries every month, pads can be part of the monthly toiletries bought for her without her having to ask or be embarrassed," says Dr Mkwananzi.

She says that in this way, period hygiene becomes a regular part of growing up for your child, just like buying soap or roll-on.

Dads should also allow their daughters to explore other methods of period hygiene and inform them that if they want to try something new, they are free to discuss it with them.

Must see: No need to suffer in silence with period pain

Dealing with pain

When it comes to period pains, Dr Mkwananzi advises that parents need to ensure a steady supply of pain killers in the medicine cabinet, if their child experiences period pains often.

But there are also natural ways of alleviating this pain to certain degrees, such as taking ginger tea, laying a hot water bottle on one's stomach and soaking in a hot bath. However, these methods work better for some people than for others.

Dr Mkwananzi says that what is important to stress to a child that the pain does not worsen over time, which may indicate endometriosis. If the pain is worsening, they should approach a doctor.

Any progressive pain to the extent of vomiting or inability to walk and function during one's period should be immediately checked by a gynaecologist.

Also see: 'A book to help with your flow': Learn colourful facts about menstruation

Late education and its consequences

Dr Mkwananzi encourages progressive talks from an early age regarding sexuality, how babies are made, relationships, love and reproductive health in general. 

Part of the reason is to help combat teenage pregnancy, as Dr Mkwananzi highlights research that says that teenagers living in single-parented households show higher levels of pregnancy due to lower levels of sexual communication and guidance from their parents.

Dr Mkwananzi says that talks about sexuality, how babies are made, relationships, love and reproductive health are related, adding that an inability to speak about sexual matters openly and freely will probably mean that talks about periods and personal hygiene will also be avoided.

Adding that this avoidance may make a girl child ill-prepared for the commencement of her period.

"It is reported that girls start their periods as early as 6 years old these days. This is because many young girls are slightly overweight, and also, a lot of the foods we eat these days have hormones in them, which makes the developmental process progress faster," adds Dr Mkwananzi.

"This is evidenced in the age of pregnancy among young girls being lower as well. In some of my underage pregnancy research, I have found girls as young as 10 years old being pregnant and having babies."

"That is why I recommend girls to be spoken to at the age of 8 years old and for preparatory talks that are casual to happen even from an earlier age. If a girl feels free to speak to their parent about anything that they do not understand, chances are they will be able to approach that parent as well when something confusing or worrying happens," says Dr Mkwananzi.

As a single dad raising girls, tell us the most challenging conversation you have had with your child.

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