As a fully inclusive program of all genders, scout leaders need to be knowledgeable about menstruation and provide appropriate support for scouts who experience menstruation. The typical age for a first period is 12, with most people starting to have cycles between age 10 and 15. However, there are those who get them earlier and later, so age alone does not tell you if a person has a cycle.
As a fully inclusive program, you may have scouts in your group who come from homes that are far more conservative or far more liberal than your own home. Those values impact how a family handles periods. Girls have historically been shamed and discriminated against because of having periods. Periods are often a source of embarrassment and distress. Your job as a scout leader is to both normalize periods for your group, and to respect your scouts’ boundaries.
Not all people who have periods are women or girls. Scouts who are non-binary or transgender can have periods too. When talking about periods with your group, try to use non-gendered language. Because periods are not something to be ashamed of, it is ideal to just let everyone in your group know about access to period supplies your group has, no matter what their gender or their personal need for such supplies. It is not unusual for a scout to discover on a trip to the bathroom that they need a pad or tampon and need to ask their buddy to go get them one. This is one of the secret reasons women go to the bathroom together, so they can share supplies if needed.
There are parents who may not allow their daughters to attend swimming, camping or other events during their periods due to a variety of cultural, financial, and anatomical reasons. You may have scouts who just do not use some menstrual products. Tampons, cups and menstrual disks that must fit internally are just not a solution for everyone. While those products may sound like they would make a scouting activity easier to attend, it is extremely important to not make values judgments about what products someone uses. Reusable options like period panties and cloth pads can be expensive, and not all families are comfortable with washing them.
There are several “backcountry menstruation guides” available on the internet. Please be aware that those are generally targeted at adult women who have the ability to purchase and test any and all products without explaining their needs or choices to a parent. It is challenging to find a guide like that that is appropriate for teens. Many of these guides suggest using products that are appropriate for adults and emphasize earth conscious choices over practicality. Some guides are even full of myths and false facts.
Especially in younger people and teens, periods can be random. While the ideal adult cycle puts periods on a regular schedule, many people don’t experience regular cycles until adulthood. During teen years periods can show up anywhere from two weeks to eight weeks apart, instead of the “normal” four. As a result, your scout may not be prepared when their period arrives so your group should be prepared for them.
Your group should provide access to period products at all times. I recommend having at least pads, or pads and tampons in your first aid kit or patrol box and in a discrete, easy to access place. For example, a leader might always keep a package of pads in the console of their vehicle. Since this vehicle goes to all of the troop’s scout meetings and hauls the gear for camping trips: “I need to get that thing from your truck” is easier for a scout to say than “My period just started and I need a pad.” Getting something from the first aid kit or patrol box that is in a central location may make it accessible, but may also mean a scout is observed and feels exposed accessing supplies there. Being able to get a pad or tampon without discussing it, reduces embarrassment for the scout and keeps it private. Make sure all adult leaders and patrol leaders are aware and know they can access pads on behalf of scouts or themselves as needed.
All bathrooms used by scouts should always have a trash can for disposing of used products at all times. They clog plumbing, so they need a place to go when they are used. If you are running an event, be sure there is always a receptacle in all bathrooms.
Periods are often accompanied by cramps. During a period, the body essentially performs a dress rehearsal of childbirth, the body has small involuntary contractions for up to an entire week, while struggling to eject the lining of an entire organ. Cramps can be debilitating. If you’ve never experienced them, assume it feels like you are being repeatedly punched in the gut (and back, and occasionally even thighs). It is ideal to know for all of your scouts if they are allowed to have
pain relievers while at scouting events. Obtain parental permission at the start of the scouting year if possible, so that you know if your scout can have Advil, Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) for headaches or cramps while camping or at other events without parents present. Be sure your first aid kit is stocked with those, and if there is an additional place to access those, be sure scouts know that too. It is a good idea to have a leader who is designated to also have with them pain relievers and allergy medication. These may be in their purse, car, or otherwise on their person, so that scouts have a designated leader to ask about medication.
Be willing to change chore schedules if one of your scouts develops debilitating cramps. Doing activities that involve a lot of bending at the waist and reaching can make cramps worse as those movements cause the body to press on the uterus. Yes, you can accommodate cramps just like you would accommodate a sprained ankle. A scout suffering either a sprained ankle or cramps may not be feeling up to gathering firewood, but they can help cut veggies for dinner. Be aware that cramps are not constant or consistent during a period, and that just because a scout feels better later, or once the painkillers kick in, that doesn’t mean they were “faking it.”
Some teens are comfortable talking about their periods more than others, particularly girls over 15 who have been menstruating a few years. They are normalizing it for themselves and others and trying to find the balance. This can be difficult given the cultural taboo around discussing menstruation, particularly in mixed company. It is not uncommon for someone on their period to say, as a way of explaining why they are not feeling well, or just in general, “I’m on my period” or “I’m PMSing something horrible right now”. The key here is to help with normalizing this kind of discussion without it becoming an invasion of the person’s privacy. A girl making that kind of statement is not, necessarily, granting permission for people to ask her about her period. Mostly she’s just expressing frustration with the situation or looking for support and sympathy from others in the group about how periods can be a pain.
On the other side of this coin are other people talking about someone else’s period. It is not acceptable for people other than the person actually experiencing the period to point it out to others in the group. Talking about someone else’s period, particularly when that person did not initiate the discussion, should not be permitted. Talking about periods in the abstract (What are they? What are these things in the first aid kit?) is a valid topic of conversation but should be monitored and gently guided if it heads in the direction of reinforcing myths or false stereotypes.
Myths and Falsehoods
- Bears are NOT attracted to used menstrual products or blood, and neither are other wild animals. Here is article about the topic: https://www.livescience.com/22688-myth-bears-attack-menstruating-women.html
Before you even think of suggesting that used products need to be stored or disposed of carefully due to wildlife, please remember that every person having their period is wearing a partially bled on product and smells like blood. Really. Do NOT make your scout worry they are climbing into their sleeping bag to be a bear taco, because their period arrived while camping.
- Period blood is treated like it is dirtier than any other blood. It isn’t. It is just blood. Be sure if a scout ends up with pants covered in blood from a period, you don’t treat it differently than you would a shirt soaked in blood from a nosebleed. Have a single way you deal with blood and don’t act like period blood is different. It is just blood.
- PMS and cramps ARE real. There are all kinds of myths about them. Don’t buy in to them, and instead just trust your scouts and parents. What is true, is that girls on their periods are experiencing hormone fluctuations that can relate to mood changes. Many girls are more assertive and more aggressive during their periods. While this can mean physically aggressive, it usually means verbally. This trait is one our society has labeled as “bitchy”. But the truth is, that the same traits when seen in men and boys are acceptable and even desirable.
If a female scout is suddenly behaving differently, more aggressive, more assertive or more stubborn, stop before you speak. Be sure you aren’t correcting a behavior in a girl that you wouldn’t comment on with a boy. Just because it isn’t her normal, that doesn’t make it wrong. Girls are given many messages by society to not be assertive and become leaders. Do not be part of that problem. Only comment on or correct behaviors that actually break the group rules, the same as you would with a boy. If a girl experiencing PMS signs herself up to be patrol leader, she is going to pull it off. The hormones just gave her the push to say what she really wanted.
Both boys and girls can experience hormone surges that make them more prone to cry and be easily upset, particularly during their teen and pre-teen years. Be sure to never belittle any of your scouts of any gender for becoming emotional, crying or showing their feelings. Do not make an assumption about what they are feeling. Crying is a physical response to feeling overwhelmed, but the reason the scout feels overwhelmed isn’t always apparent. Frustration, anger, sadness, and exhaustion are all possible root causes for crying. Everyone cries. Everyone gets upset. “I see you are upset. Do you need to take a break?” Is an appropriate response no matter who is upset. Empower your scouts to own their feelings and not feel ashamed of them.
If your scouts are camping far from bathrooms, used menstrual products will need to be put in bags and hiked out like anything else. Ziplock bags covered in duct tape are an economical way to make a leak proof bag that you can’t see through. If your scouts use reusable products like period panties, ziplock bags or wet bags are options to hike those out too.
Ideally, every scout who has periods will pack supplies for those for every trip and you can add those to your packing supplies list you give scouts. However, you should make sure there are extras along on the trip either with a female adult leader, or with a female patrol leader who is comfortable with that role. Both menstrual supplies and extra ziplock bags should be kept in an easy to access place. The group first aid kit may be ideal.
Toxic shock syndrome is a health condition that can happen if a person wears a tampon for too long. It is related to bacteria build up in the vaginal wall and the infection can be fatal, so wearing a single tampon all weekend for a camping trip is extremely dangerous. Scouts need to change their tampons every 8 hours at a minimum. This is a sensitive subject, and you may want to send information to parents to discuss with scouts before taking them on longer trips. Also, toxic shock syndrome has been linked to several specific times that tampons were manufactured with contamination of bacteria. The tampon industry has worked to make tampons safer in recent years, and reduce the risk of contamination by this deadly bacteria.
Be sure to take regular bathroom breaks at your events so that scouts can change their pads or tampons when needed. While it is fine to have a policy anyone can go at any time, designated bio breaks are more comfortable for many scouts. Realize that when dealing with periods in the backcountry, a scout might need more than 5 minutes just to get what they need from their pack and load it back up.
Periods are a normal part of life. Treat them that way. Be sure all your leaders know how to access supplies and are comfortable telling scouts where they are. Remember that this is a sensitive subject and if you are unsure of what to do, consult with some of the moms of your group.