Count, breathe, relax: Sesame Street teaches children to cope with trauma

Cookie Monster looks visibly shaken. To help him calm down, the Count teaches him a simple relaxation technique, “count, breathe, relax.” On being asked how he feels after this exercise, a jubilant Cookie Monster says, “Hey! Me feel terrific! Me calm. Me relaxed.” The Count tells him to repeat the exercise whenever he is angry or upset.

The endearing Muppets are back, but this time they are not teaching numbers and alphabets to preschool children. Instead, they are participating in the first-ever comprehensive initiative designed to help children cope with traumatic experiences. The launch of the initiative was announced by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind “Sesame Street”, in October 2017. This project would be a significant addition to the “Sesame Street in Communities” program which supports parents and caregivers for bringing up children in a healthy environment.

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and supported by other charities, the idea aims to mitigate the negative impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and unforeseen stressful events like natural disasters and violent incidents. ACEs include poverty, abuse and neglect, domestic violence, parental substance abuse or mental illness, divorce and parental incarceration. Sesame Street in Communities had previously partnered with local organizations to help affected families deal with bereavement or the incarceration of loved ones.

Resources include videos, books and games featuring the beloved Muppets. Characters adopt different ways of dealing with their emotional responses to trauma. Parents and caregivers can apply these models to teach children coping strategies to manage “big feelings,” a therapeutic term defining emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness.

Overcoming toxic stress with appropriate care and support from adults

Data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), released in October 2017, showed that nearly a quarter of American children had at least one ACE, and nearly 22 percent had two or more ACEs. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), stress resulting from ACEs, may become toxic when there is “strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship.”

Children with ACEs are at a higher risk of learning and behavioral issues, early initiation into sexual activity and teenage pregnancies. Serious health conditions like obesity, heart disease, alcohol and drug use, during adulthood, are directly related to childhood adversity. The new material incorporates proven strategies used by social workers, therapists, health care providers and educators which, when combined with appropriate care and support from adults, reduce the impact of childhood trauma.

Sherrie Rollins Westin, executive vice president, Global Impact and Philanthropy, for Sesame Workshop, said, “Even though children may endure adverse experiences during their childhood, it does not have to define them.” Children have high resilience, and the new tools can equip parents and caregivers with appropriate skills to convey difficult messages to them. Whether it is Rosita, a green monster Muppet, learning about safe ways to let out feelings, or Big Bird being transported to his imaginary “safe place,” the heart-warming and funny videos provide positive ways for adults to connect with youngsters.

Reassuring children regarding their safety

According to the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (CAHMI), trauma and toxic stress can be relieved by factors like family relationships and resilience, social and emotional skills, and family-centered care. Many parents cannot understand the impact of stress on their children’s brain development and long-term health. When children see their favorite characters dealing with difficult emotions constructively, it reassures them regarding their own safety and the ability to handle emotions.

If children’s traumatic stress responses are not regulated in a timely manner, it can lead to lasting problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Traumatized youngsters are at a particularly high risk of developing PTSD. Teens with PTSD may develop anti-social tendencies, skip school or adopt reckless habits like unrestrained sexual activity, self-harm, bingeing and purging. Many can even attempt suicide. Perhaps the most common and unhealthiest coping mechanism is misuse of alcohol or drugs.

Dealing with PTSD

According to the National Comorbidity Survey Replication- Adolescent Supplement, a nationally representative sample of over 10,000 adolescents aged between 13 and 18 years, 5 percent adolescents have met the criteria for PTSD in their lifetime.

As one of the leading therapeutic boarding schools, White River Academy helps teenage boys aged between 12 and 17 years recover from mental health problems, including PTSD in teens. Call at our 24/7 helpline number or chat online with one of our experts to know about the best PTSD treatment centers in your vicinity.


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