Speaking to young people in foster care about periods shouldn't be taboo

Corinne Masheder is an occupational therapist who helps people overcome challenges so that they can live independently at home, at work and everywhere else, empowering people to participate in everyday life activities. 

Whilst at university earlier this year, she started to think about how occupational therapy could help children in care who face unfair barriers to participation in activities. One taboo topic came into focus – menstruation. She explains how without the right products and education, periods can be a particularly debilitating part of the month for young people in care.

CorinneThe issue

Studies suggest that 14 per cent of girls in the UK did not feel that they knew what was happening when they started their period, with one in four girls reporting that they did not know what to do¹. 

Although 14 per cent may seem like a small number, this is still a large population of girls who have received little information or education about periods. Despite this being research about girls overall in the UK, other research suggests that care experienced young people may have barriers to period education due to a sometimes lack of safe, consistent relationships. 

Research also suggested it may be likely that the circumstances children in care have found themselves in, often involuntarily, can cause them to have difficulty in building these consistent, strong relationships with adults. They can therefore find it difficult to ask for help in areas that may feel a bit more awkward or embarrassing, such as their period.

What we know so far

In Start Talking, a project conducted by The Fostering Network, I discovered that many young people had received little or no relationship and sex education from others and often had to educate themselves or ask a sibling. 

The project also highlighted that many children felt that they were ‘dying’ when they started their period due to not having received this important education. It has also been the case that many young people have never lived in a house with a man before going into foster care, so they would not feel comfortable or know how to discuss these topics with a male. 

However, the barriers may also come from foster carers themselves. For instance, research has suggested that some foster carers feel that they do not yet have a strong enough relationship with the child in their care to discuss topics such as periods, sex and relationships. 

How can we change this?

The simplest way to educate young people about periods and make it less taboo is to normalise conversations about the topic and provide practical support. 

It has been suggested by young people themselves that providing easy access to sanitary products within their home will allow them to speak about periods more comfortably, approaching it in a timeframe which suits them. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean sitting with the young person on the day they move in with their foster carer(s). Instead, before this happens it can be beneficial to normalise conversations about the topic – making the discussion approachable and comfortable.      

In various conversations I’ve had myself, the most comfortable way to talk about periods is to just chat and share stories, whether they are embarrassing, difficult or funny! Ultimately, these all help to make this challenging, painful time of the month more human and less taboo.

¹Brown, N. Williams, R. Bruinvels, G. Piasecki, J. Forrest, LJ. (2022) ‘Teachers' perceptions and experiences of menstrual cycle education and support in UK schools’, Frontiers in Global Women’s Health, 3.
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