Why It's So Important That 'Sesame Street' Is Helping Kids Cope With Trauma

Nearly half of all children have experienced some form of trauma by the time they are a teen.

Whether it be developing a character who has autism, creating content for refugee children, or simply sending out a tweet in support of LGBTQ Pride, Sesame Street has never shied away from introducing complex topics to children. Most recently, the kid's show launched an educational online program called "Traumatic Experiences," which teaches children coping strategies and resilience-building techniques. The program, which is currently available in English and Spanish, is meant to assist kids with expressing their feelings after experiencing or witnessing trauma. 

The National Children's Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) defines trauma as "the physical and emotional responses of a child to events that threaten the life or physical or emotional wellness of the child, or of someone critically important to the child (such as a parent or sibling)."

Sesame Street's free online resources of activities, games, and videos include effective coping strategies used widely by social workers, therapists, doctors, and teachers. 

"Our process is what we call the Sesame Workshop Model, and that means we go into communities and find out from providers as well as parents and caregivers what is needed; what types of resources they need, how they use them, and when they use them," Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president of US social impact, told A Plus. "We went into three communities: Los Angeles, Calif., Kansas City, Mo., and Guilford County, N.C. We held multiple focus groups, tested out these resources and used prototypes to ensure that these resources would be effective." 

In one video, Big Bird tells his friend Alan that he's got all these "big feelings." He's feeling sad, angry, confused, and anxious. "It's all those feelings and they're all mixed together and I don't know what to do," Big Bird tells him. Alan assures him he understands and these feelings are normal to have, especially when something difficult has happened. 

Then, Alan helps Big Bird learn a coping strategy. He encourages Big Bird to calm down by imagining his safe place, a place in his mind that he goes to feel peaceful. He leads Big Bird in some short deep breathing and then asks questions to help him imagine what his safe place would look like. Soon enough, Big Bird feels calmer and safer. 

Sesame Street's beloved characters all have different emotional responses to trauma. In one video, Elmo builds a fort out of blankets and pillows to feel safe when he's worried and scared. In another, Rosita learns to safely release her anger by hitting a pillow and roaring like a dinosaur. The Count uses counting to calm down — and teaches Cookie Monster to do the same. In a different video, different characters explain the value of giving yourself a hug

"Children need to know — especially during hard times — that they're not alone. Sesame Street has always been a source of comfort to children dealing with very difficult circumstances, and given how few resources there are for young children dealing with traumatic experiences, we knew we could help," Sherrie Westin, executive vice president for global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, said in a press release

In addition, Sesame Street released a series of learning guides for adults to teach them how to get kids to ask for help and how to have hope. "Sesame Street Communities is designed to connect both children and the important adults in children's lives," Betancourt told A Plus. "We know that by taking this dual approach, these strategies can be embedded in the everyday routines of both parents and their children, especially when they face difficult challenges." 

News of Sesame Street's latest programming has spread widely, in part, because of all of the traumatic events that have happened in the U.S. recently. 

The "Traumatic Experiences" program was released on Friday just days after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The prevalence of mass shootings in the U.S. in the past decade has made it more and more necessary for parents to talk to their kids about these events. Even if kids don't learn about them through family, friends, or media, a report published last year found that nearly two-thirds of U.S. schools hold some form of "active-shooter" drills that teach kids and teachers how to respond if there's an armed intruder. 

In addition, natural disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria can have a profound effect on children. Learning about gun violence or experiencing a natural disaster can leave kids feeling those "big feelings" Big Bird was talking about which is why it's so important they learn some of these coping techniques. 

"These coping strategies and resiliency-building techniques don't just help children right now – they help also help children in the future," Betancourt said. "We know many children will have traumatic experiences as life goes on. If you build a strong foundation early on and teach them how to cope and express their feelings, especially big feelings, and have a sense of safety and comfort in having conversations around these topics, these are skills and strategies children will use for a lifetime."

Analysis of the 2016 National Survey of Children's Health was also released with Sesame Street's new programming on Friday and revealed that nearly half of American children under age 18 have had at least one out of nine types of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), a clinical term used to describe stressful or traumatic events. They also found that more than 20 percent of American children have had at least two ACEs. "Children who have had multiple ACEs are at a significantly higher risk for issues affecting their development, learning, and health, with cumulative impacts as they age into youth and adulthood," according to the report

It's extremely important we all start to focus on our mental health and the mental health of our loved ones. Let's stop telling boys to "man up" and girls to "get over it" and instead teach them effective tools for processing and dealing with their emotions. And, while Sesame Street's program is recommended for young kids, these comprehensive resources can be extremely useful for people of any age.

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