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How We Can Support Healthy Romantic and Sexual Development for Youth

"That feeling of having your first crush, of finding somebody attractive, of sometimes finding out that somebody is not attractive, that they like you, but you don’t like them. Figuring all that out is really critical learning that young people need to do during this time."
— Ahna Suleiman, PhD

Romantic relationships during our adolescent years can be important aspects of healthy development and social learning. Given that most of this learning occurs in the context of peers, what kind of impact are social distancing and other COVID-related restrictions having on young peoples’ romantic and sexual relationships? And what can adults do to support healthy sexual and romantic development, now and once this pandemic is over?

In our 2021 webinar, “Love in Adolescence,” Dr. Ahna Suleiman (Sacramento State University), Dr. Pamela Anderson (ETR), Dr. Crystal Tyler (Ci3), and Dr. Stephen Russell (University of Texas at Austin), offered suggestions on ways parents and other caring adults can support this learning to promote healthy relationships into adulthood.

Start the conversation early. Adolescence starts earlier than many of us think–puberty begins around 10 years old–and can bring physical and hormonal changes that shift the way people view and treat us. “If any of us in whatever capacity we’re working in are asking ourselves, when should we start talking? The answer is now,” says Dr. Ahna Suleiman. “If we aren’t yet, we should start immediately.”

Listen. “As young people are developing their own sense of who they are in their life–in their life that’s increasingly got hours of the day and screen space that’s independent of what we know about and understand fully–that listening part becomes so much more important,” says Dr. Stephen Russell

Be conscious of our own biases. “We bring our biases from what it was like growing up during our time,” says Dr. Pamela Anderson. “And that does not fit with today and what young people are experiencing and what they’re bringing forward.”

We also need to be aware of racial biases that often become amplified as youth enter puberty. “It could be from the identification of black and brown young women, viewing them as older women when they’re 10 or 11 or the identification of young men who might be 10 or 11,” says Dr. Crystal Tyler. “They’re viewed as adults and treated as adults by law enforcement or teachers or anyone else.”

Talk about love. School-based sex education usually focuses on the physical aspects of sex, and may extend to issues of dating violence and consent. But we seldom talk about love with young people–possibly because it’s hard to define love even as adults. Even if we don’t have answers, we can help young people explore the question for themselves.

“‘What is love to you?’” Dr. Tyler suggests asking. “‘Do you think this is love?’ ‘How do you know?’ These are things that really get them thinking about what it is they want from relationships. Are you even looking for love? If you’re not, that’s OK.”

Become an advocate for policies that help youth without parental support. Not all young people can talk about issues of sex and romance with their families. We can think about more than just our own kids by advocating for research-informed policies that support all young people as they develop their romantic and sexual identity.

“We know that explicit, supportive, inclusive policies and state and federal laws for non-discrimination and inclusion work,” says Dr. Russell. “We know that communities and schools that have inclusive policies and practices in their libraries, in their curriculum, and the interactions between adults and young people, we know that those places are places where young people feel safer and do better, have higher achievement and have better mental health.”

Learn from young people. Adults don’t have all the answers for how best to navigate romantic relationships. Young people have a unique perspective on their own experiences and those of their peers, and they can tell us what is helpful to them. “Particularly around LGBTQ youth and the youth of various groups, they’ve been doing some amazing things to create community during this time,” says Dr. Suleiman. “And so I think that learning from them and supporting their leadership is a really great opportunity for us.”

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