The pandemic has altered family life in unexpected ways. Some kids are happier now that they’ve gotten a chance to slow down; more people are cooking; and men have discovered housework. Parents’ conversations with their teens about dating and relationships, and their monitoring of their teens’ behavior, have also changed.
My research team — which included WCW Associate Research Scientist Lisette M. DeSouza, Ph.D., WCW Research Associate Amanda M. Richer, and Alicia Doyle Lynch, Ph.D., of Lynch Research Associates — surveyed 328 parents of high school students throughout the U.S. between March and June of this year. We asked questions about how they communicated with their teens about dating and relationships before schools closed due to COVID-19 as compared to afterwards. We also asked questions about their stress levels and whether and how they monitored their teens’ behavior.
What we found was a significant drop in parent-teen communication about dating and relationships once COVID hit. This makes sense: parents reported higher stress levels as many deal with sick family members, essential work requirements, financial difficulties, and the general anxiety of the pandemic, which likely leads them to focus on the immediate day-to-day needs of their families and put off these types of conversations. And with many teens stuck at home, parents may assume that relationships and physical intimacy in particular are on hold, so the need to talk about them is not as critical.
For example, one parent explained, “Having the added stress of constantly being together, and now having to not only be his parent, but his makeshift teacher, and then trying to talk about serious things too, has all been just too much.” Another parent shared, “The fact that kids are not interacting, thus there is no "dating" taking place, which is a little bit more difficult to talk about and put in context when it isn't happening.”
We also found an interesting change in gender roles among heterosexual parents. Mothers reported having fewer conversations with their teens about dating and relationships, and fathers reported monitoring their teens’ behavior more closely than before the pandemic. This increase in fathers’ monitoring may in part reflect fathers’ shift from working outside the home to being at home during the pandemic (61% of fathers made this transition compared to 39% of mothers). While mothers are still monitoring and communicating more than fathers, it may be that since many fathers are spending more time at home, parents’ roles have shifted, and fathers are taking a more active part in their teens’ lives.
More research is needed to delve into what this data means, but it’s an important reminder that parenting roles aren’t set in stone. Sometimes a crisis can prompt unpredictable and even positive changes. The way parents have communicated with and monitored their teens in the past doesn’t necessarily dictate their future actions. Thinking outside the box can help; though mothers are often assumed to be the ones in charge of having these conversations, my research has shown that fathers play an important role, as do extended families.
October is National Family Sexuality Education Month, which is as good a time as any to reassess family communication about dating and relationships. Even if teens are at home, they’re likely chatting with peers online, and may be forming new relationships or continuing existing ones. They may have different questions now about what’s appropriate or comfortable in a relationship. Maybe it’s time to start a conversation with them, and consider with fresh eyes who might have that conversation.
Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist who leads the Family, Sexuality, and Communication Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women.