The pandemic is depriving teens and young adults of many of the social and developmental experiences that are usually a huge focus of adolescence. Romance is chief among them.
Hybrid and remote learning have killed opportunities to run into their crush in the hallway. If kids weren’t in a relationship before the pandemic began, it’s become much harder to start one. For those who were, spending time with a boyfriend or girlfriend has become risky and logistically complicated. Worse, any dating at all requires the willing cooperation of both parties’ families. And nothing says romance like having Mom and Dad involved.
Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, says that she is hearing about more demoralization and loneliness among her patients since the pandemic started. “Romance is a fun and important part of their development that is missing, and they really feel the absence of it. You’d expect maybe just girls, but boys are complaining too.”
Parents can’t make the pandemic end any sooner, but you can be supportive during this unusual period, whether your kid is trying to start a relationship or they’re feeling lonely without one.
Acknowledge that this is difficult
Harold Koplewicz, MD, psychiatrist and president of the Child Mind Institute, recommends that parents start by recognizing how difficult the pandemic is for their teens and young adults. “I think the most important thing parents have to do is have a discussion with their teens validating how much worse this is for them than for their younger siblings or for their parents. Because at the end of the day if you’re 40, 50, 60 years old, one year is a blip in your life.” For the young people missing out on those early crushes, dates and prom, social distancing is a much bigger deal.
Letting your teen know that you sympathize will go a long way toward making them feel understood, which is good for their morale and your relationship. It will also help set the stage for a larger conversation to check in on how they’re doing and make sure they’re making good decisions.
What is different about dating during a pandemic
A lot of young people were already meeting romantic partners over social media, points out David Friedlander, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “On Snapchat in particular, they’d be reacting to the same things and they would wind up being friends and eventually that would progress to them being a couple.”
But if the early stages of adolescent romance haven’t changed that much, getting serious has grown more intimidating. “In the past you’d be out and about socializing at school, parties, sporting events. There would be all these natural opportunities to flirt and feel it out,” says Dr. Howard. “Now it’s more like, ‘I have to take steps towards courting this person.’ You have to go for it now.” Expressing romantic interest was already a challenge for many teens, so with these added barriers, some kids (especially those who lack self-confidence or experience social anxiety) might simply decide not to bother.
Changing the speed of relationships
When kids do embark on a relationship, it can get intense quickly. For one thing, getting together requires a more sophisticated level of planning and vetting than it once did. “It’s moving very quickly because people are bored and because you have to work so hard for the relationship that you want to make it last a long time,” explains Dr. Howard. “So it’s speeding up and maybe deepening relationships that would otherwise be one part of a full social life. It’s now a much more prominent part than we usually have around this age.”
During the pandemic romantic relationships need to involve more open communication, for safety reasons. Young adults living independently need to discuss their boundaries and come to a mutual agreement about who they will be hanging out with, when they will wear a mask, and so on. Teens living at home have to do the same thing, with the added complexity of needing to involve their families in the conversation. It’s all a lot to manage at an age when teenagers are still learning how to set boundaries and communicate effectively.
Preferably teens should be slowing down physical contact right now, says Dr. Koplewicz, given the COVID risks. But if your teen is resisting that, an open conversation is essential. Recognizing that the last thing teenagers want to discuss with their parents is sexual activity, he notes that parents may nonetheless need, for the safety of everyone in the two families, to get involved. “You have to say, let’s do this the right way. Let’s not have it behind our back. If this is something that is really important to you, let’s figure out how to be reasonable about this. Let me talk to his mother, let me talk to her father, let me see if we can work it out so you can be safe in two pods.”
Setting — and respecting — boundaries
Dr. Friedlander recommends following your child’s lead. “If they are really, really shy and say, ‘Mom, leave me alone!’ as soon as you bring it up, then you should not follow up with, ‘So we’re going to talk about safe sex now.’ Obviously they’re not going to go for that.” To break the ice, Dr. Friedlander instead recommends starting from a place of curiosity. “I would probably begin with something like, ‘So this is different. So this is weird, huh? I’m so glad I didn’t have to deal with dating during a pandemic. Can you tell me what that’s like?’”
When you do get to setting expectations about what dating might look like, explain that your goal is not to thwart the romance. It is easy for teens to get carried away by an exciting new relationship, and they’re less likely to listen if they think you’re trying to get in the way of that. “Make it very clear that you’re talking about it from a COVID-safety perspective, and not a policing-their-behavior perspective, because teens do not respond well to that,” Dr. Friedlander says.
Then, once you’ve set sound ground rules for how your teen might be able to date safely, do your best to give them a semblance of privacy. For example, if it’s their fire pit for the evening, try not to eavesdrop and keep their younger sister away.
Kids may be conflicted about what to do if their romantic interest wants to push their boundaries, whether those are COVID safety boundaries or physical or sexual boundaries. This is another thing that parents shouldn’t be afraid to bring up. “This is the conversation we should already be having as parents about healthy relationships and boundaries,” says Janine Domingues, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “Someone respects you and you say ‘No,’ and that’s okay. They’re not going to break up with you. And if they do, then this was not a healthy relationship. And the same goes for nude pictures or other things they’re asking you to do — if the hairs on the back of your neck stand up then that’s a red flag.”
Supporting kids who are lonely
For kids who aren’t in a relationship and wish they were, relationships are still possible. But for kids who are having trouble socializing with anyone online, romance might not be the answer. “For socially phobic or depressed kids, I would say you’ve got to walk before you can run,” says Dr. Friedlander. “Just trying to get them more social activity, period, should be the goal. Getting them a romantic partner should be target two or hopefully seven.”
Dr. Domingues suggests validating their understandable desire for a boyfriend or girlfriend but then reframing it. “You can say, ‘I get it, you want this connection that is different that is outside of friendship. But let’s take it one step at a time and think about how you can feel connected in groups. Even if it’s joining a Discord group and talking about a particular game. How can you find your identity and connect with other people and maybe get some fulfillment that way?’”
As kids get more confident and more socially adept, they can try to explore more romantic relationships. Sending a platonic but friendly Snapchat message could be a good first step. For kids who are worried about putting themselves out there, Dr. Howard suggests now is a good time to try. “Kids are all home and bored and they want to communicate. Right now it doesn’t seem suspicious. So I would start out reaching out as friends and see if you can increase your communication.”
Help with pandemic breakups
If relationships are more intense during the pandemic, breakups are even more so. Because kids are socializing in person with fewer people, their romantic relationships become even more significant than they usually are, which means that after a breakup their feelings of loss are magnified.
If your child is crushed after a breakup, be as supportive as you can. Even if you didn’t like their ex, or the relationship didn’t seem to have much of a future, now is not the time to tell them. Instead, try to be empathetic and recognize that they’ve just lost a person who was very important to them. Check in to see how they’re doing, particularly for young adults who are living on their own. This is a strange and difficult period, and many young people are feeling isolated and depressed. Breakups can make us feel hopeless, and “hopelessness is what really hurts,” warns Dr. Koplewicz.