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Listeners' Questions On Navigating Relationships In The Pandemic


You know, we're finally at the stage of this pandemic where things seem - I don't know - possible again, in part because of the development of COVID vaccines. But that won't be a fix for the stress and tension some of us have experienced in relationships while in quarantine. Well, we asked for and heard some of your stories and questions about how to recharge, mend and reconcile relationships of all kinds. And to help us out, I'm joined by Dr. Lexx Brown-James. She's a marriage and family therapist and sexologist based in St. Louis. Thank you for being here.

LEXX BROWN-JAMES: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: And NPR correspondent Cory Turner. He's also here to help. He covers parenting and education, among other things. Welcome, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: Our first question comes from Ann Swan (ph). She's trying to figure out how to navigate her relationship with her three adult children who all moved back home during the pandemic.

ANN SWAN: It's hard to meet them where they are at in their own development as adults when they come home and revert to maybe the way they were when they were 16. And it's hard for me wanting to also make the jump into empty nester life (laughter) and not parent them the way I would a teenager.

CORNISH: So we've all heard this kind of idea before, right? You go back home for Thanksgiving or something, and everyone reverts to their roles in the family dynamic. But I don't know, Cory, if you want to start. What's your advice for Ann Swan here?

TURNER: Yeah. Well, so I want to be a good listener here and just tell Ann that I hear you, and I feel your pain. That said, I've also been working on a special project looking into the mental health impact of the pandemic on not only kids but teenagers, folks 18 to 24. And it's been bad. So it wasn't that long ago - I believe it was in August - when CDC surveyed 18- to 24-year-olds. Seventy-five percent of 18- to 24-year-olds during this pandemic said they were struggling with at least one mental health problem.

And if you think about where they are in their development - and remember; they're still developing, too - you know, they may or may not be stuck in college. They may not have found a job, or if they did, maybe they lost it. Having to come home or choosing to come home or whatever the combination is and sort of revert back to where you were a while ago has got to be really difficult.

CORNISH: Dr. Lexx Brown-James, can you talk about this? How does she even approach this conversation?

BROWN-JAMES: I am right on with Cory there. And the word that comes up is jarring, right? Twenty-one up to 28 means those people were starting to explore their own social locations in life. They were starting to hash out their identity of who they were away from home. And they're not exactly going to get that, either. And you're trying to figure out your identity as maybe not so much of an attached parent right now. So boundaries are where that comes into place. You still get your time alone where people aren't talking to you, where people aren't asking you for things. And, yes, that's always your baby. They're always your babies. And they're young adults. You don't have to take on that parentified (ph) or even dictator-level role anymore because you're trusting them in their adulthood growth path.

CORNISH: Our next question is from Sara Davies (ph) in Texas. She's 33. Before you ask, yes, she's on the dating apps. And she says that she's trying to set up face-to-face dates and that it can feel really difficult, like that she's struggling to find ways to date safely. Here's her question.

SARA DAVIES: I'm trying to, like, recreate the sense of connection that one would have online that you can get face-to-face. And I'm having a bit of a problem trying to make that happen.

CORNISH: Lexx, do you hear much of this?

BROWN-JAMES: I do see people who are longing for that connection, especially as our skin hunger rises - so that desire to be touched and to give touch. And as we're trying to recreate, I think those boundaries are going to be super-important here. So if you're looking at a socially distanced date, how about we both get COVID tested, we get our results back and then we can do a meetup?

And then I do want to say maybe not feasting so much with our eyes and in person but trying to build up some sensuality and intimacy, figuring out what your likes are. Why don't we listen to an album together of an artist we like and talk about the discourse in the songs? Let's take it away from having to be presentable on a camera. And let's cook together. Let's talk about foods together. Let's send each other something that we might like in the mail - and so building connection and intimacy through that level of vulnerability rather than feasting with eyes.

CORNISH: Feasting with eyes - very nice. All right. We have another question, and this time it's from Derek Weber (ph) in Connecticut. He's 39. He wants his young kids to spend quality time with his parents - right? - so their grandparents. But they don't take COVID precautions seriously.

DEREK WEBER: My parents don't really appreciate masks, and I do. I am an X-ray technologist. I work in a hospital myself, and I can see how important they are. Navigating this relationship over the last several months has been very difficult. What kind of suggestions you got? Thank you.

CORNISH: All right, Cory - your suggestions for Derek. I know this is - earlier in the pandemic, people did talk about a kind of generational difference in the thinking about how much precautions needed to be taken.

TURNER: I think my first answer to questions like this is always communicate. You are the parent in this situation, and you have the right to lay down some ground rules. And then if that just doesn't seem to work, then I would really encourage parents to get creative and find ways for their kids to connect with grandparents and other relatives, frankly, in really meaningful ways remotely - you know? - so not just set up the old Zoom chat or FaceTime or whatever it is. I've been telling folks, like, pick an activity and not just a game, you know?

So I often FaceTime with my parents on Saturday morning, when I always make my boys pancakes. I set the phone on the counter while I'm making them, and my boys will pop into the room. They will pop out. They will give love and hugs. They might share a story. It feels more like you are a part of our lives than it feels like, hey; we've carved out this moment of superficiality for us to share in and feel a tad awkward for 20 minutes until we hang up, you know?

CORNISH: And lastly, we have a question about that light at the end of this tunnel. A lot of us are wondering if we'll even know how to interact with each other after all of this. Ellen Walsh (ph) in North Carolina has this question. She's 61, and she lives alone.

ELLEN WALSH: I'm comfortable being isolated, so to speak. And my concern about myself and maybe other people that are single, live alone, is that - are we ever going to get to a point where contact or less of a social distance is going to be a norm? And how are we going to handle that?

CORNISH: So, Dr. Lexx Brown-James, I understand this is actually not an unusual question.

BROWN-JAMES: Right. There's a lot of worry on how, if ever, things are ever going to go back to normal because our world has been shaken. After everybody maybe gets vaccinated, people will still be like, I'm wearing a mask; don't touch me; I'm wearing gloves; we're not doing this, because this has now been imprinted into our DNA. So I do think it'll be a step-by-step.

CORNISH: That's Dr. Lexx Brown-James, therapist and sexologist based in St. Louis. Thanks for being here.

BROWN-JAMES: Thank you. Thank you.

CORNISH: And NPR correspondent Cory Turner. Cory, thanks.

TURNER: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODEZENNE SONG, "SOUFFLE LE VENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.