A CASE STUDY*: HOW SESAME STREET’S “LITTLE CHILDREN, BIG CHALLENGES: DIVORCE” PROGRAM HELPED A CHILD HEAL

As a mental health professional, I am fully committed to protecting the privacy of my patients. In the case study below, I have changed the identities and some of the details of the individuals involved. What is real, however, is the child’s emotional experience and the ways that I was able to use the Sesame Street materials to help her and her parents. 

A local pediatrician referred a mom and her four-year-old son to me because he was having extreme temper tantrums and meltdowns that lasted for hours. His pre-kindergarten teachers saw these highly disruptive behaviors in their classroom. His severe mood swings and rage lead them all to fear that he might have bipolar disorder or some other serious emotional problem.

As I worked with “Jason,” I could see he was extremely confused about his family. His parents had recently divorced, and his father had left their home abruptly. In the midst of their own emotional distress, the parents had avoided talking with Jason about the sudden and dramatic changes in their family life, except to say that they no longer loved each other and would not be living together.

Because he had so little understanding of what was happening, he became extremely fearful that both of his parents might “go away and never come back.” He was overwhelmingly frightened about his future and had not yet developed the skills he needed  to identify and describe his feelings. Hence the emotional overload came screaming out of him in ways that terrified his parents, his teachers, his doctor, and most of all, Jason himself.  He was completely out of emotional control.

I used Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce” as a key set of tools in helping him understand that that the problems his mom and dad had were grown-up problems, but that their love for him will never stop. He watched Abby Cadabby’s video over and over. Together, we explored how Abby said that at first she’d had many of the same big feelings that Jason had, but that her feelings had changed over time. He found Abby’s description of her two homes where she lived with her mommy and her daddy reassuring. Through Abby, Jason grew to understand that like Abby’s parents, his own parents would always be there to love and take care of him.

I used the Sesame Street materials with Jason’s parents, too. Both were very worried that in the midst of their own tough emotions, they might say the wrong things to him. With the solid, research-based information they now had, they learned what messages Jason most needed to hear (that their love for him would never change, and that they would always be his parents) and how to reassure him in ways he could understand. Both parents now use the Sesame Street materials to continue to clarify their family situation and reassure their son.  

I am happy to report that within a few weeks, Jason’s rages and tantrums decreased dramatically, and he has continued to grow in his understanding and confidence about his life. He is happy in his pre-kindergarten class and no longer has tantrums or disruptive behavior at school. Neither his teachers, nor his pediatrician, nor his parents are worried any longer about him having a serious psychological disorder.

Getting psychological support early and using research-based approaches such as the Sesame materials can make such a positive and lasting impact on a child’s life.

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Dr. Pedro-Carroll served as an advisor to Sesame Street in developing “Little Children, Big Challenges, Divorce.” She is the author of the award-winning book, “Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce. Her blog, Helping Children Thrive, also provides valuable information for parents. Image

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SESAME STREET “DIVORCE” PROGRAM MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE FOR PARENTS AND THEIR LITTLE CHILDREN

What a difference Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce” program is making in the lives of young children!  We are using the materials in our award-winning programs for children and parents.  I use them with parents and their children in my clinical practice, and I’ve also been distributing kits to school mental health professionals and pediatricians for their young patients.  All of us are finding the results are heartening and remarkably consistent.

One reason the Sesame Street materials are so important is that young children are seldom able to tell their parents about their fears and misconceptions.  Instead, they often act out their fears and worries in meltdowns, tantrums, or clingy behavior, and even experience physical symptoms such as tummy aches.

The Sesame Street online resources, DVD, and books give these children critical information and reassurance. At the same time, they provide parents with natural openings to talk with their children about family changes and with proven words and concepts to use in their conversations.

Here’s what we’re finding when parents use the Sesame Street materials with their children:

  • Many parents report that the materials gave them the words to have the hard conversations they had been avoiding.  They are grateful for the help!
  • Parents also report improvements in their children’s clingy, whiny behavior, and decreases in their worries and complaints of tummy aches.  They say their children are not as frustrated, demanding, and angry over small incidents.  These behavioral changes occur as children’s anxiety, confusion, anger and frustration are reduced.
  • Children come into my play therapy room talking about their “big feelings,” and some are even singing the “Big Feelings” song! I hear them reassuring themselves as they repeat that “divorce is not kids’ fault–or Abby’s!” All of this reveals that children are relieved to have accurate, age-appropriate information and a new-found ability to put their feelings into words.

Using the Sesame Street materials, children are learning the powerful ability to express their strong feelings in words.  They are also learning to manage their emotions in healthy ways – a foundational skill for healthy relationships in the future and resilience over their lifetime. With the help of their parents – and Sesame Street – they feel reassured and secure in the belief that their parents will continue to love and care for them, always.

How I met Abby Cadabby on Sesame Street…and how she can help children through divorce

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Dr. Pedro-Carroll with Muppet Abby Cadabby in the Sesame Street project: Little Children, Big Challenges, Divorce.

Having worked with children and families as a clinical and research psychologist for some 30 years, and having 7 children and stepchildren of my own, I’ve been a huge fan of Sesame Street for many years. So I was especially thrilled when they came knocking on my door and asked me to serve as an advisor for their new initiative: Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce.

This website and a whole host of tools have just been launched, and I’m thrilled to recommend this resource to parents who are somewhere along the continuum of transitions relating to divorce. In a virtual sea of information, advice, and opinion – often conflicting – Sesame Street offers  a wealth of solid, research-based information that parents can reliably use for themselves and with their children.

More on that another time. Today, I’d love to share my peek behind the scenes at Sesame Street. My work with them began back in March 2011. Job one was to establish the research base for the project, with a focus on what we now understand about how young children experience divorce, what impact it has on them, what factors cause risk to their short- and long-term well-being, and which ones promote their resilience.

Once the knowledge base was established, then the creative work of translating it into a story and imaginative yet realistic ways of sharing the important lessons with children and their parents. I was so impressed with the creative team’s dedication to making the scripts and other materials not only accurate for the children’s developmental stages, but also feel completely authentic to them.

One of the first strokes of genius was to choose sweet, wispy Abby Cadabby as the primary character — the little girl whose parents had divorced. She is believably vulnerable, and yet she also displays candor and strength in articulating her feelings – a wonderful model for young children. Another stroke of genius was in making Abby’s story a retrospective. In this way, she is able to talk about the mixture of big emotions she had at the beginning (so typical of children in these circumstances) and also reveal how she’s feeling now. It is reassuring to children to realize that what they feel now is not necessarily what they will feel in the future — that they will have more positive feelings as life moves forward and, with their parents love and support, they adjust. In Abby’s case, she tells her friends that although she is still sometimes sad that all of her family no longer lives together in one house (again, typical of children to have these lingering feelings), she is mostly happy. She particularly likes her “two-hug days” of transition between her mom’s house and her dad’s, because both of them show her how much they love her.

Abby is a source of important lessons for parents as well as children. The parents’ interactions are respectful and free of the kind of conflict that is very distressing to children. She learns through conversations with Gordon that she did not cause her parents’ divorce, a common misconception that many children harbor and often hide from their parents. And she learns that just as she did not cause the grownup problems her parents have, she cannot solve them.

All of this is presented in a normalized environment, with the Sesame Street Muppets sitting around a table, drawing pictures of their homes and talking about their families. This is just one more of the nuances that make it possible for children to relate to and believe in Abby and her friends — and take their experiences to heart.

There is much more to say about this wonderful new project. But let me stop for today with this: if you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, therapist, judge, mediator, attorney or anyone else who is seeing a child through divorce, please find your way to Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce.