February 05, 2013

By Dr. Joanne Pedro-Carroll

Tackling Divorce: Dr. Joanne Pedro-Carroll on Sesame’s Little Children, Big Challenges Initiative

JoAnne Pedro-Carroll is a clinical and research psychologist and author of the award-winning book, “Putting Children First:  Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce.” She serves as a lead advisor to Sesame Street for Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce

Today, there’s an important conversation taking place at Sesame Streetanother important conversation in a thoughtful and penetrating series that has taken place behind the scenes here over the past several years. Those conversations culminated in Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce.

I can’t begin to tell you how important and valuable I believe this project is, and how particularly pleased I am that Sesame Street chose to tackle this very tough subject. Having spent more than 30 years working with children and families as they struggle with big changes in their lives, I have seen a very real need for what Sesame Street delivers. While the bookstores and media have a virtual torrent of information about divorce, much of it is conflicting. As a result, it can be very tough for parents to know what to believe, and how best to help their children through the transitions. That’s why Sesame Street, which has earned parents’ trust for basing its programming on a depth of quality research, and has a very wide reach, is such an invaluable resource on separation and divorce, as on so many other critical topics.

In the United States, some 40 percent of all children experience their parents’ divorce. We know from research that the series of changes this causes in children’s lives does impact them, sometimes in profound ways for their entire lives. We know that for some children the effects can be devastating. Despite the myth that all children – particularly young children – are resilient, they are not automatically so. But the good news is that it is possible for children to survive and thrive. Research has shown what factors and behaviors influence positive outcomes and promote children’s resilience. With this knowledge, parents, family, friends, health care providers, judges, mediators, attorneys, teachers, and everyone who cares about children have the opportunity to help children thrive.

This research is the body of knowledge that Sesame Street has tapped into and interpreted so thoughtfully and creatively – as always, with insight into and sensitivity towards young children’s developmental stages. In working with the talented and dedicated team that put together this project, I was deeply impressed by their commitment to providing children and parents with the verbal tools and positive messages to help them through what are often bewildering and frightening times.

In creating the divorce story around Abby Cadabby, the team chose a charmingly wispy – and potentially vulnerable – character that young children can relate to. By having her tell her story in retrospective, they give children a context for what they may be experiencing and an example of effective ways of coping.  Abby reveals that at first she had a number of different strong feelings – something typical of young children – but that her feelings changed over time. While she expresses some lingering sadness and disappointment over the fact that her family is no longer all together in one home – again, emotions that many children continue to feel – she focuses on the positives of the “two-hug days” when she experiences the unchanging love that both parents show her.

In conversations with Gordon and her Muppet friends, Abby also becomes the vehicle for other fundamental lessons. Many children believe that they caused their parents’ divorce, and many are convinced that they can get their parents back together again. Often they hide these and other fears, worries, and misconceptions from their parents. But through Sesame Street, children learn that divorce is a grownup problem that children do not cause and cannot solve.

Parents, too, learn from the Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce resources what their children may be experiencing and how they can broach difficult conversations and offer reassurance. They witness, through Abby, the tremendous importance of children having age appropriate information about what will and will not change in their lives. Children lack the ability to label and understand their emotions at times.  The Sesame Street materials give parents child-friendly tools for connecting and communicating with children about their feelings.  The written materials and downloadable app all reflect the importance of parents’ taking good care of themselves and parenting in ways that convey their unending love, and creating calm transitions and consistent expectations and routines for children.

Research has shown that the three most detrimental factors for children experiencing their parents’ divorce are a breakdown in the parent/child relationship, unresolved, on-going conflict, and poor quality of parenting. Conversely – and this is where the Sesame Street model is so helpful – nurturing a loving and positive relationship with the child, behaving respectfully toward the child’s other parent, and providing positive parenting with both emotional warmth and authoritative limits pay enormous dividends in children’s short- and long-term well-being.

There’s so much more to say. But perhaps my biggest message today is that, once again, even as they struggle through their own transitions, parents can turn to Sesame Street with confidence that the insights and advice they offer for parents and children is absolutely spot-on.  This Sesame Street resilience project empowers parents with tools for providing a message of hope, healing, and healthy new beginnings.

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