March 25, 2013

By David Cohen

Sesame Street Helps Children Cope with Divorce

David Cohen is the director of domestic research for Sesame Workshop.

When my friend tried to explain her divorce to her 8-year-old niece, her niece reflected “It’s going to take me awhile to process this.” Her niece’s reaction might be considered precocious, but it also shows the deep emotions children grapple with when faced with such a life altering effect.

Young children need ongoing and sensitive help from trusted adults who approach this event in age appropriate ways. In fact, young children are at risk of having more adjustment problems than older children, since they are still in the early process of developing the coping skills necessary to deal with all the changes associated with divorce. They also often blame themselves for the divorce or feel that it is their responsibility to bring their parents back together.

Given the special relationship that children develop with Sesame Street characters and the human cast, we believed that we could play a role for families going through this often traumatic situation. Clearly tackling a topic like divorce, especially with preschoolers, required a sensitive and thoughtful approach. Typical of all Sesame Workshop initiatives, our approach included the input of advisors, who included psychologists and other mental health professionals specializing in the impact of divorce on younger children. We also conducted preliminary research with divorced parents and their children, who viewed working drafts of the materials and provided suggestions and recommendations which could be incorporated into the final version.

We are incredibly grateful to the parents who shared their own stories and provided invaluable feedback about how we described and portrayed divorce. Feedback from parents helped fine tune the video in which Abby Cadabby’s friends show their support when she tells them about her parents’ divorce. For example, the moms and dads suggested that different types of divorce situations should be portrayed in the video, and not just those in which the divorced parents live near each other (as is the case with Abby’s parents in the video). To address this, producers included live action films of real families talking about how they cope when divorced parents live farther apart. These live action films were included with the Sesame Street story in the final version of the video.

Parents also mentioned that in the draft version Abby acted calm and composed when speaking about her parents’ divorce and that was not realistic. Instead parents suggested that Abby should show the feelings that they’ve seen in their own children — anger, confusion, and sadness. As a result, Abby was more explicit in expressing her complex emotions in the finished version of the video — she tells Gordon, “Yeah, I am angry! And sad… oh, I love my mommy and daddy so much!”

Great wisdom and sensitivity went into the creation of the materials. In the words of an 8-year-old girl, it took a lot to “process this.” With the help of the advisors and families who helped shape this project, we were able to launch “Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce” which is available here. We’re hopeful this initiative will make a difference for families of divorce as they help their preschoolers navigate the challenges and experiences they’ll face together through this major life event.

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