So much has been said and written about what the pandemic has done to our kids’ brains and all that’s been lost and deeply changed by more than two years of living through a traumatic global health crisis. We’ve discussed the ways kids are affected by the pandemic and our concerns there. We’ve talked about the milestones teens have missed, and the toll on their mental health. But when it comes to how the pandemic has affected their social lives and sexual development, there’s so much more to unpack.
After all, these years are those crucial ones where young people are figuring out who they are and who they’re going to be in terms of their romantic lives and relationships — and the disruptions this particular generation of teens has encountered will inevitably become a big part of their identities.
“Teens are literally defining themselves and finding their group identity — who they wanna be among others,” Dr. Lexx Brown-James, a couple’s clinician and therapist (and SheKnows’ resident sex columnist) says. “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 a full view of one another’s faces and no anxiety of getting themselves or their loved ones sick), has led 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, sex educator, speaker and writer Dr. Logan Levkoff tells SheKnows.
“The hallmark 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 says. “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, ‘where is your line?’ so to speak, they really haven’t been able to do so.” She continues, “They’re very behind on the emotional, social, physical skills that become really important to become fully functioning adults.” Levkoff isn’t just talking about explicit sexual experimentation, either, but things “like holding hands and kissing… Flirting!”
As parents who are far removed from their own adolescence, it can be harder to remember the discomfort, the thrilling discoveries, and the overwhelming newness of that time and learning how to do those things.
“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 says. “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 young people in this particular age group haven’t really had the opportunity to practice some of those skills. It’s not just the emotional vulnerability of putting yourself out there or even identifying your feelings; it’s also 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 liked someone who did not like me back. And yes, it sucked and hurt and I cried a lot. But it did teach me resilience. If we’re not even making those first steps, we don’t 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 identifying your feelings; it’s also navigating feelings of rejection, which they’re not getting an opportunity to practice either.”
It’s those experiences — the cringe encounters at lockers, 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 any relationship and approach to sexuality well.
An inability to get that practice can lead to problems as teens enter their adult lives — where they won’t have the back-up of their parents or closer-knit communities — and make it even more challenging for them to understand their sense of self in a relationship, what they really want, and what 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 says. “But in this case, it would be, ‘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 are positive ones or healthy ones, but they do shape who we are.”
The thought of teens leaving their childhood homes sans those formative experiences worries experts like Levkoff, because there’s just so much they’re ill-prepared for.
“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,” Levkoff says. Teens living on their own, beginning to take risks without any kind of safety net (not to assume that everyone has one) and maybe lots of drugs and alcohol available — “that, to me, is problematic,” she says. “Imagine a whole generation of young people who aren’t having those [experiences] or access to tap into those feelings. What happens when they go into this next chapter of their lives as young adults? If they don’t have any of those skills to navigate that, that means delayed adolescence.”
The potential for unnecessary harm (emotional or physical) among teens is a major concern for parents, who have had to watch their kids experience life over the last two years via screens and at a distance from their peers — and miss out on so much. And it’s in this big old mess of intersecting grief that we can miss valuable chances for real and beneficial communication.
“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.
“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 is 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, 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.'”
Dr. Brown-James adds that adults can always do more to validate how “teen relationships are real” as well — and not be 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.
From there, the actual, concrete safety decisions at this stage of the pandemic (with variants still in the picture, 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.
“Across the board for young people, socialization is critically important — having friendships, having connection, not feeling isolated,” Levkoff says. “We need to be concerned. And at some point, every family has to decide for themselves whether or not the potential benefits outweigh the risks.”
Before you go, check out our favorite (and some of the more affordable) mental health apps for extra self-care: