‘For-Now Parents’ and ‘Big Feelings’: How Sesame Street Talks About Trauma

“The Muppets can often do what humans can’t. They’ve got this special power.”

From left: Elmo with Karli, a new Muppet who is in foster care, and her foster, or "for now," parents, Dalia and Clem (Courtesy of Sesame Workshop)

ASTORIA, NEW YORK—Inside the Sesame Street studio in Queens, Elmo is playing “monsterball” with his friend, a new Muppet named Karli who has lime-green fur and two ponytails. (Monsterball, for what it's worth, appears to be the same as soccer, but with a furry ball.) Puppeteers, with their hands raised high and their heads cranked to the side to stay out of the camera’s shot, run around, making Elmo and Karli kick, laugh, and throw the ball.

Outside, it’s a chilly gray December Monday, but on set the monsterball park is brimming with plant life, and butterfly puppets held up on long metal wires flap their wings. Looking on are Elmo’s dad—yes, he has a dad now, as of 2006—and two of what Sesame Street calls “anything Muppets,” puppets with no particular character attached that are made as templates and can be adapted as needed. These Muppets—a fuzzy teal monster in an athletic jersey and a gray monster with pink and purple feathers for hair—have become Karli’s foster parents, Clem and Dalia.

In between cheering for Elmo and Karli, Elmo’s dad (whose name is Louie) asks Clem and Dalia: “How has everything been going, since becoming her foster parents?”

Clem hangs his head and sighs. “Changes like this can be really rough for kids. And for adults, too,” he says.

Next to me, Kama Einhorn, a writer and senior content manager at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street, drops her head and mimics Clem. “Things are really rough,” she says in a deep, exhausted voice. This, apparently, is not exactly what Einhorn had in mind.

Between takes, she confers with the puppeteer playing Clem, and gives him a note to pep it up a little. He was being too morose, Einhorn explains to me. That’s not the vibe she wants this segment to have.

In the final version of this video—part of Sesame Workshop’s new set of materials on foster care, released today—Clem’s head is held high, and a measured acknowledgment that sometimes things can be tough gives way to excitement when it’s decided that Elmo can join Karli, Clem, and Dalia for “pizza-party Tuesdays,” because as Louie says, “everything’s better with a friend by your side.”

The foster-care resources—which include an interactive storybook and printable activities, as well as videos featuring Muppets—are the latest in a series of packages that Sesame Workshop is producing to support kids going through traumatic experiences. These online resources—which won't be featured on the television show—are intended for use by parents and caretakers, and also by therapists, social workers, and anyone else who works with such kids.

Sesame has been making various supplemental-resource packages for decades now, though they started taking their current, online form around 2010. Many of the packages on the site have nothing to do with trauma but are geared toward topics that affect every kid—healthy eating, tantrums, sharing, math. Starting in 2013, Sesame began to focus on tougher topics, starting with a package for kids whose parents are incarcerated. (All of these resources are available in both English and Spanish.) Over the past year or so, the organization has chosen three topics to focus on: family homelessness, the resources for which were released in December 2018; foster care; and substance abuse, the resources for which are slated to come out in October.

Through its Sesame Street in Communities initiative, Sesame Workshop partners with organizations around the country that work with young children. Sesame picked these issues—homelessness, foster care, and substance abuse—because it heard from these partner organizations that they didn’t have many resources addressing these things from a child’s perspective, a spokesperson told me.

“Historically, I think we’ve tended to believe that young children won’t remember or don’t really have the ability to make sense of what’s going on, and therefore it doesn’t impact them. And that’s clearly not the case,” says Phil Fisher, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who studies child development under adversity, and who was not involved in creating the Sesame Street resources.

He notes, for example, that after traumatic events, children can experience changes in stress-hormone levels and have trouble paying attention. Even preverbal children, he says, understand when big changes are happening around them. “A 2-year-old is likely to be able to understand that their parents are having a hard time, or that their life circumstances are chaotic and unpredictable, even if they probably couldn’t articulate that on a verbal level,” Fisher told me.

Keeping the developmental level of the audience in mind,, Sesame Workshop puts a lot of work into conveying these concepts in ways that kids can understand.

Leaders at Sesame Workshop start by assembling a group of advisers, who work professionally on the topic at hand or who have a personal stake in it. The advisers get together with the Sesame team for a focus group and, as Einhorn puts it, “download to us what they know about the topic.” Writers at Sesame take the themes of these conversations and incorporate them into video scripts, activities, and a digital storybook. As the resources take shape, Sesame repeatedly sends them to the advisers for further comment, in a feedback loop that lasts up until the point of filming.

“We spend a lot of time fine-tuning language,” Einhorn told me. “How do our Muppets [portray] it? How do we make it playful? How do we have this light touch for a heavy topic without diminishing the topic?”

When talking to kids about any kind of traumatic experience, experts emphasize the importance of helping them name their emotions and understand that they’re normal. “Just like [how in order] to read you've got to know letters, if you’re going to talk about things that have happened to you, you’ve got to have feeling words,” says Ann Thomas, the president and CEO of The Children’s Place in Kansas City, Missouri, a treatment center for kids who’ve gone through trauma. Thomas consulted on both the foster-care package and more general traumatic-experience resources for Sesame Workshop. “They don’t know what this swirly uncomfortable stuff is. It’s like a knot inside of them. We have to start untangling that knot.” Sesame’s videos, Thomas says, not only give children those feeling words, but they model for adults how to help kids sort through their feelings out loud.

For example, in one of Sesame’s trauma videos, an adult named Alan, the proprietor of Mr. Hooper’s store, does just this for Big Bird, who arrives in the store looking upset. Alan asks how he’s doing, and he replies, “Not too good. I’ve got all these feelings.”

“Are they big feelings?” Alan asks. “Like sad, or angry, or confused? Anxious?” Big Bird responds “yeah” to each emotion. “It’s all those feelings, and they’re all mixed together, and I don’t know what to do!” the Muppet says. Alan goes on to teach Big Bird an exercise of imagining his safe place—his “comfy cozy nest”—in order to feel better.

The scene never states just what upset Big Bird, and this is not unusual, according to Daniel Anderson, a developmental psychologist who has consulted on many kids’ TV shows, including Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Blues Clues, and Sesame Street, though he was not involved in creating these resources. Writers often choose not to show the inciting event to avoid upsetting young viewers. Also, “you almost never see characters crying on a kids’ program,” he told me, “even though it would be far more realistic and gripping to the audience, but if you do that then the kids can get very upset.” And it’s true that in all the Sesame Street videos on trauma I watched in researching this story, I never saw a Muppet cry, though they hang their heads and speak sadly.

For each topic, the Sesame writers boil down what they’ve learned from research and heard from advisers into bite-sized phrases such as “big feelings.” Avoiding overexplaining, Thomas says, is also key. For foster care, the takeaway phrases the writers settled on were: “You’re safe, you’re strong, you belong”—which the Muppets sing in song form in one video—and “for-now parents” as a kid-friendly synonym for “foster parents.”

Adriana Molina, an adoptive mom of two children—a daughter, 3, who was formerly in foster care and a son, 10, who is her wife’s relative—has learned to pay attention to the transitions in her kids’ lives. “When [our son] came into our lives, we thought he was going to come for a visit, and he ended up staying,” Molina, the director of Project ABC, a program in Los Angeles that works with young kids and their families, told me. “We didn’t know to give him as many of the words for This is what’s happening, or This is what’s changing. Whereas with [our daughter], she’d only been in one foster home her entire little life. We were able to ease into that process and do some visits in her space. Slowing things down was a very concrete learning” experience, she said.

Molina was an adviser for Sesame’s foster-care resources, bringing both her personal and professional experience to the process. “‘For-now parents’ is a lovely, neutral place to be,” she said. “The language of being in foster care is it’s where you are now; it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s where you will always be.”

But that concept of temporariness is often hard for young kids to grasp, according to Anderson. “Preschoolers have such a limited time frame and sense of past and future,” he said. “And something like homelessness, even if it’s temporary, it might be temporary in terms of months, which would seem permanent to a child. That’s a very difficult thing to deal with.” Ideally, he suggests keeping conversations with very young children in the realm of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The idea that things are a certain way “for now” and might be different in the future is “not a real reassuring kind of notion because preschool kids really crave stability and security.” But, he says, “it’s honest,” and for kids going through something such as homelessness or foster care, "I guess that’s probably as good as you can do.”

After all, uncertainty creates anxiety even for adults. And trying to shield kids from the uncertainty shaping their lives, Molina said, doesn’t work. "Part of what creates the anxiety is when they're being told one thing, but they have a sense of something else," she said.

Thomas adds that if grown-ups don't explain what's happening to children, kids will create their own explanations, which might make them feel even worse than the truth. “When bad things happen, it’s very natural [for young kids] to assume they caused it," she says. "It’s natural to have magical thinking at this age.” Her advice is similar to Anderson’s—don’t lie about what’s happening, even if you have to be ambiguous (telling them they’ll see their parents when they’re “bigger,” for example), and “grounding them back in what’s working today,” Thomas says.

The digital storybook about Karli addresses this magical thinking directly: “A lot of grown-ups are helping your mom,” Karli’s foster mom, Dalia, says in the book. “It’s a grown-up problem and it’s not your job to fix it. None of the bad things that happened at home were your fault.”

No character ever explicitly discusses why Karli is in foster care, but Einhorn told me that the Sesame Street team wrote the character with the idea that her mother is away getting treatment for substance abuse. Karli will be featured again in the substance-abuse resources that are slated to come out this fall, though they won’t reference foster care, and the foster-care resources likewise don’t reference substance abuse.

All the packages are self-contained, so kids won’t need to see both in order to make sense of Karli's story. Though as Einhorn put it, “trauma is trauma,” and there are some recurring themes in the content. Many of the resources emphasize the importance of relying on a broader community for support. And activities such as breathing exercises or artistic expression show up repeatedly. Karli draws out her feelings in the foster-care storybook, and colors a concentric heart in one of the videos to show that “a heart can grow” with love for her foster parents and new friends, even as she feels sad about missing her mom. In one of the homelessness videos, a Muppet named Lily draws dots on a chalkboard to represent all the people who love her, and connects them to form a heart.

Fisher, the University of Oregon psychologist, looked at the homelessness and trauma resources before we spoke, and said that “the messages that were employed were trauma-informed and evidence-informed, and have been found to be effective.” What’s less clear, he said, is if exercises that are effective in a therapeutic context will still work when delivered through a screen.

That’s something Sesame Workshop is studying—a spokesperson told me that the organization is currently conducting a randomized controlled trial on the effects of their trauma resources, but the results won’t be out until later this year.

“What seems to me to be the active ingredient here is the normalization of these experiences for children,” Fisher said. “[It can be] really ostracizing and isolating for children to perceive that their circumstances are different than others’. You have these familiar characters talking about it and normalizing that it’s something that can produce feelings.”

“The Muppets can often do what humans can’t,” Einhorn said. “They’ve got this special power.”

I met Molina and her son on set in December when the foster-care segments were being filmed. (Several advisers were invited to the taping.) Her son was shy when I asked him what he thought of the monsterball scene we had just watched. “It’s pretty cool,” he said. He perked up as his mom described to me the process of adopting his sister from foster care, and he interjected a few times to add details to the story. Still, the Muppets made an impression, it seems. Recently, Molina told me that when she and her son got home from the trip to New York, “he spent two weeks trying to perfect his Elmo voice.”