Sesame Street aims to help children cope with incarcerated parents

In one of Sesame Street's newest lessons, J is for jail.

A new initiative by the popular children's television show aims to help young kids who have incarcerated parents.

The program consists of a multimedia toolkit with videos, activities, tips, resources and smartphone and tablet apps that provide support for children and information for caregivers and incarcerated parents.

Sesame Street also introduced a new character named Alex, whose father is behind bars.

"I just miss him so much," the blue-haired Muppet says in one video. He adds: "Sometimes I just feel like I want to pound on a pillow and scream as loud as I can."

He is encouraged to talk about his feelings, and told that it's okay to be sad, angry or confused.

Many children are likely struggling with similar feelings: According to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, one in every 28 children has a parent behind bars, for a total of 2.7 million children with incarcerated parents nationwide.

Among black children, one in nine has an incarcerated parent, the report found. And among inmates, 54 percent are parents of children under age 17.

Studies have found that having a parent behind bars massively disrupts family life, and creates numerous economic and psychological hurdles for children.

Children of incarcerated parents "are unfairly burdened with a social stigma that identifies them by a family member's crime," Karol Mason, an assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, wrote in a blog post this month. "Although they have done nothing wrong themselves and may not even understand what has happened, they feel responsible."

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, says it created the toolkit in part because there are few resources for the young children of incarcerated parents. The kit is geared toward children between the ages of 3 and 8 and their caregivers.

Children between those ages are "yet to develop an arsenal of coping strategies on their own," and thus more likely to seek cues from their guardians, said Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the Jenkintown-based National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated and a member of a panel of experts that Sesame Workshop consulted with for the project.

More than half of children of incarcerated parents are under age 10, Adalist-Estrin said, and most other initiatives have targeted older children.

Simply making the materials available lets youngsters know they can ask questions about their incarcerated parent, Adalist-Estrin said.

"Just having this out there in the home says to kids, 'My parent is askable about this. They showed me this video. They read this book to me,'" she said.

Key messages in the toolkit, Adalist-Estrin said, are that honesty is important and contact with an incarcerated parent is helpful for most children.

"The materials really help with how to prepare kids for a visit, how to talk about writing letters and phone calls," she said.

Some of Sesame Street's tips for parents and guardians include:

  • Provide your child with a comfort item, such as a family photograph, to keep during the day.
  • Talk honestly with your child about the incarceration. Otherwise, children may come up with their own mistaken reason for a parent's absence.
  • Let your child know the incarceration is not his or her fault.
  • Write letters. Children who are too young to write can draw pictures.

Half of families with a parent behind bars don't tell their children anything about the incarceration, according to Julie Poehlmann, a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist and another member of the advisory panel. 

"It's very important not to be shy when it comes to asking for help, or when it comes to asking another parent how do you deal with certain situations," Monique, a 30-year-old mother of four children whose father is incarcerated, says in another video. Monique says "kids definitely respect you more when you come out and tell them the truth about their parent being incarcerated."

Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

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