So much has been said, written and hand-rung over when it comes to what the pandemic has done to our brains, our kids’ brains due to all the many moments that were lost or just deeply changed by two plus years of living through a traumatic global health crisis. We’ve heard of the “primal scream” of parents, the exhaustion of healthcare workers and the ways kids are affected by the pandemic — but when it comes to our teens, these young people straddling those precious, fumbling, mortifying and essential years between childhood and adulthood, there’s so much more left to unpack.
After all, these years are those crucial ones where young people are figuring out who they are in terms of their romantic lives and relationships in big and small ways that will define them well into adulthood — and the disruptions this particular generation of teens has encountered will be a part of their identities as well.
“Teens are literally defining themselves and finding their group identity — who they wanna be among others,” as Dr. Lexx Brown-James, a couple’s clinician and therapist (and SheKnows’ resident sex columnist) said. “The pandemic interrupted that process so teens aren’t having the chance to engage with peers in the same way and learn about their morals, values and social skills as they have been able to pre-pandemic. This hits romantically as well, teens aren’t able to feel one another out, practice in person consent or experience intimacy in the same ways.”
Teens not having this time in a traditional way (i.e. IRL, tactile, with full view of one another’s faces and no anxiety of getting themselves or their loved ones sick), has lead to some serious lags in their development and their ability to take the kind of “calculated risks” that allow them to safely explore these parts of themselves, as sex educator, speaker and writer Dr. Logan Levkoff tells SheKnows.
“I think that the the hallmark of adolescence, the core of adolescence, is defined by identifying, expressing and figuring out how to navigate this thing that is critically important to your life called your sexuality,” Levkoff said. “…You know, all of these moments in adolescence where you take risks, calculated risks — whether those are emotional risks or even things like physical risks, which is again important in becoming a human being — and figuring out like ‘where is your line?’ so to speak. They really haven’t been able to do so…They are very behind on the emotional, social, physical skills that become really important to become fully functioning adults. Absolutely. I mean, in there and there was another part to it’s not just like the sexually explicit sexual experimentation, I mean, I mean things even like holding hands and kissing, right? Flirting!”
It can get so much harder, the further you get from your own adolescence to remember the discomfort, the thrilling discoveries and the overwhelming new-ness of the time and learning how to do all of those things. Not just in terms of who you try to impress or romance or date but with how you move in your social circles among your peers.
“I think that we forget how much practice it takes to get social skills right — and I’ll use the word ‘right’ in quotation marks, not that there’s one way to do it,” Levkoff said. “But you’re never really all that smooth in the beginning, you’re probably not so smooth at the end. But there is serious practice and confidence that’s built. And our young people in this particular age group haven’t really had the opportunity to practice some of those skills. So it’s not just the emotional vulnerability of putting yourself out there or even identifying your feeling; it’s also be that navigating feelings of rejection, which they’re not getting an opportunity to practice either. Because there are plenty of times in my middle school years, I like someone who did not like me back. And yes, it sucked and hurt and I cried a lot. But like, you know, it did teach me resilience. But if we’re not even making those first steps, we don’t even have the opportunity to practice the potentially less than stellar options, which is also a part of growing up.”
“So it’s not just the emotional vulnerability of putting yourself out there or even identifying your feeling; it’s also be that navigating feelings of rejection, which they’re not getting an opportunity to practice either.”
And it’s experiences that you get during these ages — the good and bad, the cringe encounters at lockers and the rejections at school functions and group hangs and the devastating early break-ups — that help teens cultivate that resilience, plus the communication, emotional intelligence and problem-solving skills that serve a relationship well and the approach to sexuality that will color how you view and seek intimacy.
And the inability to get that practice can lead to problems as they enter their adult lives — where they don’t have the back-up of their parents or closer-knit communities — making it challenging for them to understand their sense of self in a relationship, what they really want and what actually feels pleasurable, positive and safe in real life situations with other people (and, in the worst cases, make it harder to identify what decidedly doesn’t).
“This is the question that I ask in some shape or form all of the adult groups that I work with: How would your life have been different if the messages that you got about sexuality were different?” Levkoff adds. “But in this case, it would be a how would your life have been different if you didn’t have those experiences as a teenager? Because I don’t assume that all teenage experiences or positive ones or healthy ones, for that matter, but they do shape who we are.”
And it’s teens leaving their childhood homes — whether that’s to college or other forms of independence that are meant to be exciting in young adulthood — sans those formative experiences that has experts like Levkoff worried. Because there’s just so much they’re ill-prepared for.
“I worry about a lot of things. I worry about young people not having opportunities to take calculated risks when they have trusted adults in their vicinity and sort of moving into the next chapter of their life where they’ve never taken any risks. And now they’re on their own, without any kind of safety net and maybe lots of drugs and alcohol available and that to me, is is problematic,” Levkoff says. “Like, if the risk-taking starts without without a real safety net — not to assume everyone has a ‘safety net.’ But like, you know, friends, family, adult friends, parents, once you once you are independent, whatever that means, and you’re not living at home, that net changes…Then imagine a whole generation of young people who aren’t having those [experiences] or not having access to tap into those feelings. And so what happens when they go into this next chapter of their lives as young adults — whether that is on a college campus or not?… If they don’t have any of those skills to navigate that, yeah, that means delayed adolescence.”
How can parents support and really connect with their teens right now?
The potential for unnecessary harm (emotional or physical) among these groups is a major concern for parents, who have had to watch their kids experience (or not experience) so much of their valuable teen years via screens and at a social distance from their peers while also experiencing their own sadness and grief about what the last few years of life have meant for all of us. And it’s in this big old mess of intersecting grief that we can miss valuable chances for real and beneficial communication between parents and caregivers and their teens.
“My biggest concern is their grief. Teens today have a lot to grieve,” Brown-James tells SheKnows. “People lost being able to create memories around prom, school trips, first romances, firsts kisses and going off to college even.”
And it can become so, so difficult when parents want to empathize with their teens and realize that they can’t truly ever get it. Not really. Even saying the phrase “I understand” when a young person tries to express the loss of this time, of these years of their short lives, can be a foot-in-mouth moment. Instead, Levkoff says, adults have a real opportunity to connect by embracing all the things they don’t understand and truly listening to where teens are coming from.
“To really be open and say, ‘I want you to know, I don’t know exactly what it is that you’re going through. I would love for you to tell me so I can help you develop whatever tools, whatever resources you need. But I’m not going to pretend that I know what you’re going through. Your teenage years look very different than mine did,’” Levkoff says. “I think there is something very humbling about that. I’ve always told parents, caregivers, guardians groups that pretending like you have all the answers — just pretending that you get it — it’s not always helpful, particularly when you don’t get it. If we want to bridge that gap and make ourselves look human and not just like disciplinarians or authority figures, to say ‘I don’t I don’t have the answer to that, but what I would like to do is find a way for us to find those answers out together.’ Where things real discussions as opposed to just one person talking at someone else.”
And Dr. Brown-James adds that adults can always do more to validate how “teen relationships are real” as well — and not be so dismissive of their feelings just because they’re young and inexperienced. “Too often they get minimized into ‘puppy love’-type situations rather than respected as the real life practice or potential lifelong relationships,” she says.
And, from there, the actual concrete safety decisions at this stage of the pandemic (with variants still in the picture, vaccines available but a lot of unknowns and a significant decrease in information), have to be made by families in a way that acknowledges the importance of these years and the gravity of what’s been lost and what young people need to have full and happy lives.
“I think that I think across the board for for young people, socialization is critically important. Having friendships, having connection, not feeling isolated. We need to be concerned, across the board. And I think that we at some point have to look at ourselves and recognize that every family has to decide for themselves whether or not the potential benefits outweigh the risks,” Levkoff says. “And again, sometimes it means reminding our kids when they want to go out with friends, we let them go. We wait, we let them do things, not just for their independence, but so that they can have some outlet to build those social skills. Because we all know if we were only sitting at our computers and we didn’t have actual conversations with people for a year or two, those social skills are really it’s hard for those things to come back. Like, how many adults when they have to go back to work, forgot what it was like to even make small talk like, say hello to someone?”
Before you go, check out our favorite (and some of the more affordable) mental health apps for extra self-care:
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