Advice

How Sesame Street Can Help Little Kids Cope With Tragic Events

Bondi’s shopping centre attack sparked crucial conversations, especially among parents, about how to talk to our little ones about tragic events. Whether kids catch wind of them through the news, school, or overhear discussions, it’s bound to be confusing and frightening for them.

Discussing public or private tragedies with children may feel overwhelming, but it’s essential for helping them understand and cope. These conversations offer opportunities to provide context, reassurance, and guidance during unsettling times, ultimately supporting their emotional growth and resilience.

Thankfully, the children’s television show Sesame Street has developed a series of tools for parents, including tips on talking to kids about tragic events.

How Sesame Street can help your child overcome adversity

Sesame Street has been around for 55 years. I grew up with it, my parents grew up with it, and my kids grew up with it. It’s a revolutionary children’s program that has tactfully and carefully introduced kids to different facts of human life. It is full of diverse human characters and puppets who experience real-life events.

how to talk to kids about tragic events sesame street sesame workshop
Sesame Street can help you talk to your kids about tough topics. Source: Supplied

Sesame Street has episodes featuring grief, death, birth, different family dynamics, homelessness, and many more, handled with sensitivity. ‘Farewell, Mr. Hooper’ still lives in my head rent-free. These episodes still resonate with the adults who watched them as children and have influenced many parents and their interactions with their children.

Sesame Workshop is a global charity encompassing everything Sesame Street has endeavoured to do since the late 60s. Here are a few helpful videos on the site to help you communicate with your children about these complex topics.

Talking about ‘big feelings’

It’s important to encourage our children to talk about their feelings. This can be done by:

  • Watching the video together and then choosing a comfort object, such as a stuffed animal or doll, for pretend play.
  • Telling kids that this little friend is having some big feelings, like Elmo did in the video, and needs comforting. You might help children relate by explaining why the animal or doll feels that way, based on kids’ experience (“She’s feeling sad because she has to move to a different home and will miss her friends.”).
  • Inviting kids to think of ways to help, such as hugging the animal or doll, showing it how to breathe deeply, and telling it they’re here to talk and listen (demonstrate these strategies as needed). This will help children express empathy and compassion and learn ways to comfort themselves and others.

YouTube video

Traumatic experiences

One in four children experience traumatic events, and these experiences have been proven to negatively impact brain development, learning and memory, social skills, and mental and physical health.

Every child responds to trauma differently, but if traumatic experiences remain unaddressed, they have serious long-term effects on children’s wellbeing. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way. Research shows that having trusted and caring adults who love, support, and protect kids makes all the difference. 
Examples of traumatic experiences include:

  • emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • emotional or physical neglect
  • witnessing violence against one’s mother
  • a parent’s addiction to alcohol or other substance
  • a family member’s mental illness
  • separation or divorce
  • the incarceration of a parent
  • involvement with the foster care system
  • witnessing community violence
  • living in an unsafe neighbourhood
  • bullying
  • experiencing racism

Traumatic experiences may be one-time events, or they may be frequent and repeated, resulting in toxic stress that elevates unhealthy stress levels over time. However, the good news is that our brains and bodies are resilient, and there are protective factors that can lessen the impact of trauma. These include:

  • Parent/caregiver resilience and knowledge: parents who can cope and who understand their child’s development, positive parenting strategies, and their responses to trauma;
  • Nurturing and attachment: when parents and other caring adults stay tuned in to kids’ needs and support them with love;
  • Social connections: when kids have family, friends, and neighbours who help;
  • Basic needs: having food, shelter, clothing, and health care;
  • Social and emotional skills: when kids and parents have ways to understand, express, share, and manage their feelings.

YouTube video

Violence

Whether children are directly or indirectly exposed to violent events, there are ways to help them feel safer and more secure.

Community violence

In the video below, Alan explains community violence to Rosita. It’s hard to know how to help young children understand and cope with the effects of violence in their community, but there are ways to help them feel safer. Sesame Workshop has some great resources that can help.

YouTube video

 

Watching for signs of stress

During tough times, children may not behave like themselves. If changes in their behaviour continue or affect their everyday lives, it might be time to seek help.

Here are some common reactions to stress and helpful ways parents can respond:

  • If children are super-clingy or scared of being alone, use gentle words to reassure them that you’ll keep them safe and you will not disappear. Little ones feel comforted and secure when there are things they can count on each day. Try to create at least one daily routine that will stay the same no matter what, like reading a bedtime story or having an afternoon snack together.
  • If children have trouble sleeping, offer a comfort object, like a stuffed animal or special blanket, to help them soothe themselves and calm down. Say, for instance, “Blankie will keep you company all night, and I will see you when you wake up in the morning.”
  • If children talk less or shy away from social situations, they may keep lots of big feelings inside. Ask how they are feeling and if they have questions. Give them words describing feelings, such as angry, sad, scared, or worried.
  • More frequent meltdowns can be kids’ way of coping with a lack of control over a situation. Try activities that help them feel calmer and in control of something, such as moulding clay, doing a puzzle, or building with blocks.
  • If bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, or baby talk reappears, try to offer love and affection, and understand that these are normal behaviours in stressful times and that it can take time for them to get better.

Sesame Workshop resources for when your child feels stressed or anxious

The Sesame Workshop has also developed some video tools for kids feeling stress and anxiety after traumatic events that include self-soothing:


5 gentle ways on how to talk to kids about tragic events

It is essential to create a safe space where children feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and emotions.

  1. Encourage them to ask questions and share their concerns openly.
  2. Listen attentively and validate their feelings, acknowledging that feeling scared, sad, or confused in such situations is normal.
  3. When discussing the tragedy, provide age-appropriate information, avoiding graphic details that could overwhelm or frighten them. Focus on the facts while emphasising the helpers and community support that emerge during difficult times.
  4. Reassure them of their safety by highlighting the measures in place to keep them protected. Additionally, emphasise the importance of empathy and compassion towards those affected by the tragedy.
  5. Encourage children to express kindness and support towards others through words, gestures, or acts of solidarity.
how to talk to kids about tragic events sesame street
Approach conversations as you would any other. Gently and with love. Source: Bigstock

As you navigate these conversations, be mindful of your emotions and reactions, as children often mirror the behaviour of adults around them. Remain calm, patient, and honest, modelling healthy coping strategies and resilience.

Above all, convey the message that while tragedies occur, there is also hope, unity, and resilience within communities. By addressing their questions and concerns with sensitivity and honesty, you empower children to process and navigate challenging events while fostering their emotional well-being.

You are your children’s safest space. They trust you to teach them how to navigate difficult situations and take care of their mental health. By modelling good mental health practices and making yourself available when they need to talk something out, you not only build resilience in your kids but also show them you’re always there for them. And that’s something they will keep with them, even when they scream; they hate you.

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Avatar of Tina Evans

Tina Evans is a complete introvert, an avid reader of romance novels, horror novels and psychological thrillers. She’s a writer, movie viewer, and manager of the house menagerie: three kelpies, one cat, a fish, and a snake. She loves baking and cooking and using her kids as guinea pigs. She was a teenage parent and has learned a lot in twenty-three years of parenting. Tina loves Christmas and would love to experience a white Christmas once in her life. Aside from writing romance novels, she is passionate about feminism, equality, sci-fi, action movies and doing her part to help the planet.

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