Session 7—Decision Making: Ready, Set, Let Go!
Parents and caregivers, of course, worry about what might happen to their children. As children move toward puberty, adult concerns expand to include harm that can result from a child’s own decisions. With sexual decisions, the stakes can feel quite high. While worry can tempt parents and caregivers to exert more control, efforts at control will not help a child develop their own decision-making skills. This session supports adults to prepare, support, and affirm children and youth who will, inevitably, make their own sexual decisions.
The session helps parents and caregivers acknowledge their own fears. It invites them to have faith in their children’s maturation process with regard to sexual decision making. The session guides participants to nurture an atmosphere of trust and communication at home to support a child’s developing decision-making capacity.
- Chalice, candle, and lighter or LED candle
- Newsprint, markers, and tape
- Computer with Internet access and a projector
- Covenant on newsprint sheet, from Session 1
- Journals or paper, and pencils and pens
- Handout 7.1, Recommended Multimedia Resources
- Explore the Recommended Multimedia Resources handout for this session. Update any links as needed. Expand the handout to include local resources. You may email the handout to participants prior to the session or copy it to distribute in the session.
- Preview the video of Al Vernacchio’s TED Talk, Sex Needs a New Metaphor. Here’s One . . . (8:17).
- Set up the computer, test the Internet connection in your meeting space, and cue up the video.
- Post the group covenant.
- Write the Focused Check-in prompt on newsprint and post it.
- Write the Spotlight questions on newsprint and set them aside.
- Write the two sets of Reflection questions on separate sheets of newsprint and set them aside.
- Write the three strategies provided in Taking It Home on separate sheets of newsprint. Set these and another, blank sheet of newsprint aside.
- Write the Taking It Home question on newsprint and set it aside.
Opening (5 minutes)
Welcome participants. If any are new, briefly review the posted covenant and remind everyone that these agreed-upon norms help establish trust and comfort for the group. Answer any questions about it, and invite a quick round of name introductions.
Say that this session will help prepare parents and caregivers for an effective role in their children’s future sexual decision making.
Invite a participant to light the chalice while you read the following words from author and psychotherapist Dr. Elizabeth Halsted, published on the Psychology Today website:
The reality of hormonal, psychological, and socio-cultural pressures combined with still immature judgement means [youth] need all the help they can get when making sexual choices. They need to be helped to think, and they need help seeing that sex always involves another person with whom they would be in a relationship of some kind.
. . Anytime teens, or anyone, can be helped to think about being relationship-positive it is all to the good.
Focused Check-In (5 minutes)
Invite the group to sit in silence and take in the words just spoken. Lead the group in taking a deep breath together. Say that while the opening words come from an article about teenage boys’ sexual decision making, their wisdom applies to all ages and genders.
Ask everyone to share how they might complete this sentence: “When my child makes their own sexual decisions, I am afraid _____.” Invite participants to respond briefly, as they are ready. It is okay to have some silence while participants think about the question. Make sure each one has an opportunity to speak or pass.
Spotlight (20 minutes)
Say that you will show the group a TED Talk by sexuality educator Al Vernacchio, who offers a fresh look at sexual activity between consenting partners. Post the Spotlight questions and invite participants to consider them while they view the video:
- Had you heard of the “baseball” model of sexual relationships? If so, how did it affect you, growing up? What emotions come up as the presenter describes it?
- Does the “pizza” model ring true for you? What emotions does it evoke?
- How do you notice your children or youth talking about sexual activity now? What kinds of words, images, and emotions do you observe?
- How might the “pizza” model help you talk with your child and support them in their sexual decision making? Consider your child’s age and developmental stage as well as your comfort with talking about sexual activities.
Make sure everyone has paper and a writing implement. Show the Al Vernacchio video.
When the video concludes, invite the group to silently journal responses to any of the prompt questions or to the video itself. You may wish to read the questions again. Allow five minutes for journaling. Then ask participants to share brief responses to the following question:
- How do you want your children to feel about their future choices and decisions in a sexual relationship?
Perspectives (15 minutes)
Say you want to share some information about biology and decision making. Say that human brain development normally continues into a person’s twenties; as a result, children and adolescents make decisions differently than adults.
Read the following words from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:
Many parents do not understand why their teenagers occasionally behave in an impulsive, irrational, or dangerous way. At times, it seems like teens don’t think things through or fully consider the consequences of their actions. Adolescents differ from adults in the way they behave, solve problems, and make decisions. There is a biological explanation for this difference. . . . Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala that is responsible for immediate reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. This region develops early. However, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood.
Other changes in the brain . . . are [also] essential for the development of coordinated thought, action, and behavior.
Pictures of the brain in action show that adolescents’ brains work differently than adults’ when they make decisions or solve problems. . . .
Based on the stage of their brain development, adolescents are more likely to:
- act on impulse
- misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions
- get into accidents of all kinds
- get involved in fights
- engage in dangerous or risky behavior
Adolescents are less likely to:
- think before they act
- pause to consider the consequences of their actions
- change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors
These brain differences don’t mean that young people can’t make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong. It also doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. However, an awareness of these differences can help parents, teachers, advocates, and policy makers understand, anticipate, and manage the behavior of adolescents.
Ask participants to reflect for a moment:
Now that you are an adult, what goes on in your brain when you make a decision? Think of a decision you have recently made. What brain capacity or skills that your child may not yet have helped you reach your decision?
Invite participants to respond in a word or phrase, sharing anything that may have come to mind. When all who wish to have spoken, invite the group to share a moment of gratitude for the gift of their mature, adult brains that can make decisions.
Reflection (25 minutes)
Suggest that participants take a journey into their own younger self. Say that connecting with a story of their own early sexual decision making can build their empathy for a child facing sexual choices. Invite them to take a moment to remember an early relationship or sexual event, one that took place well before their adulthood. How did they decide what they would do? Say they will have five minutes to journal, and that they will not be asked to share these responses.
Make sure everyone has paper and a writing implement, then post and read aloud the first set of Reflection questions:
- What was an early sexual or romantic decision you faced?
- What were any logical reasons for making your decision?
- What were any emotional reasons?
- What were any outside pressures?
- How do you feel now about the decision you made then? Why?
After five minutes, end this segment of journaling time. Now invite participants to reflect, as their adult selves, on a more recent sexual or romantic opportunity or situation, a decision they made about it, and how they feel about it now. Ask:
- As an adult facing a romantic or sexual situation, how did you decide to engage or not engage?
- What factors—logical, emotional, or otherwise, such as the effect of outside pressures—guided your actions?
Give the group several minutes to respond in writing. Then lead a brief discussion:
- How complicated is sexual and romantic decision making?
- Why is it difficult for people to talk with others about their sexual and romantic decisions?
As children and youth develop into sexual beings, they will make sexual decisions. In order to be a trustworthy support for a child’s decision making, adults must find ways to manage their own fears. Think about any fears you hold about how your child might choose to behave sexually. How can you manage those fears? Take a few moments to reflect or journal, using, if you wish, these additional questions as prompts.
Post the second set of Reflection questions and read them aloud:
- What actions you can take that will decrease your fear?
- What information do you need?
- What conversations can you have with a trusted adult?
- Other than attempting to control a child’s actions, what might a parent or caregiver do to prevent outcomes they fear?
Give the group several minutes to write or reflect. Then invite participants to respond, one at a time, as they are moved, without interruption. Remind participants of the amount of time each person may have to speak.
Taking It Home (15 minutes)
Say that parents and caregivers cannot completely control their child’s actions or make all decisions on their behalf. Affirm that the most appropriate and effective way for parents and caregivers to promote good outcomes for their children and youth is to help build their decision-making capability, so that they will be able to make healthy sexual decisions.
Post the three sheets of newsprint on which you have written these strategies:
- Communicate trust and faith in your child’s decision making
- Create an environment where factual sexual information is shared frankly
- Support your child’s independence from peer and cultural pressures
Say that these are three different long-term strategies adults can use at home to support a child or youth to make healthy sexual decisions. Read each one aloud. Ask if the group agrees these strategies can be helpful. Can the group think of others? Post a blank sheet of newsprint and write down any new ideas that are suggested.
Now invite the group to brainstorm specific actions an adult can take to use these strategies. Offer some examples: praising and affirming your child when they tell you about a well-considered choice they have made; talking with a peer or a professional to work through a fear of your own; researching a sexuality topic to share information about it with your child; initiating a conversation about the “pizza” model of sexual activities with your child. Depending on the size and the energy of the group, you might:
- Form three (or more) small groups and assign a strategy to each. Have each group brainstorm specific actions they might take to carry out their strategy, writing down their ideas. Then regather the large group. Invite each small group to share, then invite additions to their ideas from the larger group.
- Or lead a whole-group brainstorming session. Post blank newsprint and ask for a volunteer scribe so that you can facilitate discussion. Be sure to allocate equal time to brainstorming actions for each strategy.
Affirm that participants now have a large menu of supportive actions and can certainly come up with new ones. Post the Taking It Home question and read it aloud:
- What is one action I can take that will support my child to make their own healthy sexual decisions?
Invite them to journal or work with a partner to put in writing an action they can commit to. If you have time, regather the group and invite participants to briefly share, if they wish, the commitments they have made.
Closing (5 minutes)
Invite a participant to extinguish the chalice while you share the closing reading, a benediction by Eric Williams that is posted on the UUA’s WorshipWeb:
Blessed is the path on which you travel.
Blessed is the body that carries you upon it.
Blessed is your heart that has heard the call.
Blessed is your mind that discerns the way.
Blessed is the gift that you will receive by going.
Truly blessed is the gift that you will become on the journey.
May you go forth in peace.
Thank the group for their participation. If you haven’t done so yet, distribute Handout 7.1, Recommended Multimedia Resources, for participants to take home. Remind the group of the day, time, and place of the next session.