Cycle mindfulness: what happens when you teach fertility awareness to teen girls
In the 1980s, Leslie Carol Botha taught basic fertility charting to 13-17 year-olds at eight different restorative care homes for at-risk girls. A typical girl in the program had been a victim of sexual assault, ran away from home, used drugs and alcohol and ended up in jail. In working with these girls, Ms. Botha made an amazing discovery: teens who chart can regain control of their life.
Here is what she found out: for 90% of the girls in the program who had ended up in jail, it happened during the premenstrual phase of her cycle, that monthly darkness that Ms. Botha calls “falling down the rabbit hole”: increased anger, disruptive and self-destructive behaviors, suicidal ideation, and drug and alcohol cravings.
Ms. Botha engaged the girls in a comprehensive menstrual health education program that included tracking their cycles as an art project, complete with colorful markers and stickers.
“The data I walked away with was mind boggling,” she reported. Generally more stickers and bright colors are seen early in the cycle, followed by a plunge into darkness upon reaching the eight days on each side of the start of the period.
“No matter the girl, her background the type of abuse she endured, her weight, or body image,” Botha writes, “they all fell down what I call the ‘rabbit hole’ in their mind.”
These young women hadn’t been equipped with an understanding of the hormonal shifts in their cycles and how these changes were driving their moods and behaviors. After three month of charting in this rudimentary fashion, the girls starting noticing clear patterns emerging from their charts, and they became aware of that monthly “rabbit hole.”
These girls became empowered and in control, Ms. Botha reported. Mindful self-awareness and the understanding that such phases are normal and only phases made all the difference in their ability to handle them. Ms. Botha noted also that she referred to the class in her own mind as “abstinence through empowerment.”
Since then, Mrs. Botha has become an internationally recognized expert on women’s hormones and behavior. Her work and research focuses on the significance of the hormone cycle and its profound relationship to a woman’s psyche. Botha’s 30 years of research demonstrates how hormone fluctuations in the menstrual cycle affect women’s physical, mental and emotional well-being.
TeenSTAR: Teaching girls to chart all over the world
For over 30 years, another organization has taken this concept beyond an experiment and into a full blown curriculum. TeenSTAR is also an “abstinence through empowerment” education program: evidence-based and internationally renowned, their instructors teach middle and high school girls about their cycles and how to chart them in schools all over the world.
Dr. Hanna Klaus, founder of TeenSTAR, explained to me the beneficial change evident in girls who go through the program:
“We have found that it takes three cycles on average for girls to own their fertility. One of the process steps is that when they come to know their cycle, and the length of their luteal phase, they will know exactly when to expect their period. When that happens their body is talking to them and they are in charge. At that time they often move easily from peer pressure to making their own decisions, they move away from group pressure if the group proposes something they disagree with.”
One of the documented outcomes of Teen STAR’s work is the much lower likelihood for these girls to engage in premature sexual activities. The program was evaluated by ChildTrends a leading US nonprofit research organization, which reported “that this program is effective in reducing the rate of pregnancy, delaying the onset of sexual activity, decreasing sexual activity in sexually-active youth, and improving attitudes towards abstinence, compared with students in the no-treatment groups.”
Here are more changes that Teen STAR teachers from 17 countries reported:
- Students can be themselves, become more mature and self–directed.
- It moves girls from being victims of their hormones to being in control.
- It encourages students to think ahead and to make decisions ahead of crisis.
- It enhances movement from middle to late adolescence, thereby enhancing students’ level of ego development.
- It affirms the youth’s right to know about their own sexuality and helps them find answers to their questions.
Just as natural hormones drive moods and behaviors, so do the synthetic ones in hormonal contraceptives generally used to “treat” hormonal fluctuations in young girls by suppressing the entire cycle. While knowledge empowers, young women on the pill are 80% more likely to be in treatment for depression (1). During the teen years, a young woman should be developing her self-knowledge and self-image; the brain is undergoing major developmental changes in structure and function (2). How else are might birth control drugs be warping this process?
Putting women in touch with their cycles puts them in touch with the power of their fertility and brings the most unexpected results. True mindfulness for a woman includes the awareness and understanding of her natural fertility.
 Association of Hormonal Contraception With Depression, Charlotte Wessel Skovlund, MSc; Lina Steinrud Mørch, PhD; Lars Vedel Kessing, MD, DMSc; et al JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73(11):1154-1162.
 Cognitive and affective development in adolescence, Laurence Steinberg, PhD, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.9 No.2 February 2005
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