How ‘Sesame Street’ can help children cope with traumatic experiences

Big Bird is upset. Angry, sad, confused, anxious. “I’ve got all these feelings, you know … and they’re all mixed together,” he tells Alan the shop owner in a new “Sesame Street” video. “And I — I don’t know what to do.”

Alan tells him that big feelings are OK, especially “after hard things happen,” and talks to him about a “safe place” where he can feel peaceful. Together, they take a deep breath, and the big yellow bird realizes that being in his nest with his teddy bear, thinking about his Granny Bird, is where he feels safest.

It’s one part of a new initiative from Sesame Street in Communities to help educate families faced with traumatic situations. The program, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other partners, is aimed at children, parents, caregivers and others in the community.

The initiative includes resources to reduce the harmful effects on children from negative and stressful experiences, such as emotional and physical abuse and neglect, witnessing domestic violence, parental incarceration, substance abuse, mental illness or divorce, according to Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street.”

As part of the initiative, Sesame Street in Communities published videos for children that feature well-known Muppets modeling various coping strategies. An explanation of the videos is also provided to parents, along with information about how to discuss them with children. There are guides and pamphlets to help adults teach children how to cope with traumatic experiences.

One video shows Elmo building a blanket fort to help him feel secure when he’s scared. Another, called “I Can Do It,” shows Sophia helping Abby Cadabby build self-confidence: Sophia tells Abby to “describe what she wants, believe in her ability to get there and stay motivated to keep working.” In another, Sophia helps Rosita learn a safe way to deal with anger.

The initiative was designed to help talk with children about difficult topics, said Tara Oakman, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“These strategies are universal strategies to help children cope. We know the Muppets are one of the most trusted children’s programs universally across populations,” Oakman said.

With coping strategies from social workers, health care providers and therapists, parents can gain insight into the best tools for their children, according to Sesame Workshop.

“Even though children may endure adverse experiences during their childhood, it does not have to define them,” said Sherrie Westin, executive vice president for global impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop.

“As parents, all of us know that children are remarkably resilient. We believe by empowering, training and providing parents, caregivers and community service providers with these resources, we can make them even more effective.”

Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and author of “The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius,” said “Sesame Street” is a trusted, non-threatening brand that will be able to reach wider audiences with its kid-friendly videos and parent resources.

“The most important thing a parent can do is help children learn how to cope and become more resilient,” said Saltz, who was not involved in the new initiative.

Many parents do not understand the impact stress may have on children and how stressful it is to their brain development and long-term health, Saltz said.

Saltz said some parents might “helicopter,” or shelter kids from harmful events, but there are certain situations that have to be addressed. And that’s where coping skills and resiliency are important.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all around what’s traumatic or what will help, she said.

The most important tips she recommends to parents helping kids cope:

Reassure kids that they are loved and supported.

Listen to children’s feelings and avoid dismissive phrases such as “It’s no big deal” or “Don’t worry about that.”

Allow children to express themselves through talking, drawing or writing about their feelings and experiences.

It is OK to say “I don’t know.” Parents should be honest with children when not certain about why something has happened but then offer support.