Today we’re tackling a tough topic, war and terrorism. It’s hard enough to talk about amongst each other, let alone with our children. Sometimes we have no choice by to talk about it, especially if Mom, Dad or another loved one are deployed. I was able to speak to two different experts in the field to help find the best ways to cover this topic with our children.

First I spoke with William R. Clough, D. Min. Dr. Clough is married to an identical twin and the great uncle of 6 girls, including a set of identical twins. He served 25 years in the US Navy. While in the Navy he experienced extended family separations and multiple moves when his children were young. He attended the Pastoral Counseling Residency (Bureau of Medicine and Surgery’s Psychiatric Residency for Chaplains) in Portsmouth, VA, and duty stations included the Naval Alcohol Rehabilitation Center in Jacksonville, FL, First Marine Aircraft Wing in Okinawa, Japan, and Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC. He has spent the last 10 years as a professor and program program chair for the Pastoral Community Counseling program at Argosy University, Sarasota. He is Minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA; a Clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy; Educator member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors; Senior Fellow, Institute for Interdisciplinary Research; Diplomate and Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress, American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress; certified in Critical Incident Stress Management; and a member of the Alpha Upsilon Sigma chapter of Chi Sigma Iota Counseling Academic and Professional Honor Society International.

I was also able to speak with Lynn Chwatsky, Assistant Vice President, Outreach Initiatives and Partners at Sesame Workshop. Lynn is responsible for overseeing the execution of various Sesame Workshop initiatives that reach beyond television into local communities, schools, health and childcare settings to address the unmet needs of children and the people who care for them. She is also responsible for developing and maintaining key relationships with project advisors and strategic partners to help guide projects from their inception. Currently she oversees Sesame’s “Talk, Listen, Connect” project, a bilingual, multimedia initiative providing resources and support to military families with young children. Chwatsky formerly was a Project Director at Sesame Workshop, responsible for the development, launch and branding of new Workshop properties including Dragon Tales, Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat and Tiny Planets, as well as the Marketing Manager for the Workshop’s Online Group. Prior to joining Sesame Workshop, Chwatsky was an Account Executive at Grey Advertising managing multiple clients including Merck and Procter and Gamble. Lynn Chwatsky holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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We have several readers that are military families with one of the parents going off to war, what is the best way to explain this situation to their young children?

Losing a parent, even temporarily, is one of the most stressful things a child can experience. But it’s an opportunity to practice coping skills and learn resilience as well. The best way to explain a parent’s deployment depends on the age of the child but there is one principal that applies to all deployments: prepare. Preparing includes arranging practical and emotional support for yourself and for your children. Functioning without a partner at hand disrupts roles, rules, and routines. It’s essential to establish new roles and routines fit to your new, temporary, situation. New roles and routines give a sense of reliability, which is comforting. Rules are another matter. Some are flexible, others not. It’s important, when your spouse leaves, to maintain consistent discipline. There’s a danger that, out of fear, you may tighten rules too much or, out of exhaustion, you may loosen rules too far. Finally, children need honest reassurance: We will miss mommy, but we’ll get through this together.

Because parents make up most of small children’s worlds they are very aware of parental stress and absence. The best way to care for the very young, infants and toddlers, is, therefore, parental self-care. As a deployment approaches you’ll be busy planning finances, arranging for medical care, filling out forms, making house and car repairs, listing contact numbers, and doing a whole lot of running around. The increased tempo of activity, the impending separation, and the feeling of time pressure are hard. Some of the preparations bring up deep feelings. Getting wills in order, for example, may be frightening or create conflict. Having a parents’ group, religious congregation, or family support supports your children by steadying your emotions and giving you concrete assistance. Education helps because it tells you what to prepare for and helps you realize that you’re not alone (see, for example the Seven Stage Model of the emotions of deployment available at .

Preschool children are more aware of what’s going on in the world than toddlers are but they ask simple questions and should be given simple answers. Listen to their questions closely and let them lead the discussion. Keep the answers brief, factual, and as far as possible, reassuring. For example, the question “Why is daddy going away?” might be answered with a simple two part answer containing information and reassurance: “He’s a soldier and sometimes soldiers have to go to work away from home but I’ll be here to take care of you until he comes back.”

Younger school age children (6-8) may have more specific questions, like “Where is mom going?” “Who will drive me to school?” or “When will she come back?” such questions should be answered as honestly and succinctly as possible. Place names or maps have less meaning than pictures and pictures of the area, the base, or the ship can be helpful if they show familiar things like cars, houses, or tents. A calendar with the days marked off can be a help. You can discuss when the parent will leave and when he or she will return. Besides giving the child some milestones to visualize, counting down the days can be a good during-deployment routine. Of course there’s the risk that the deployment might be extended but setting a new date and restarting the countdown can be an exercise in learning resilience.

Older school age children have vivid imaginations and have probably already been exposed to extreme military-like themes through TV, movies, and games so this can be a good age to help children differentiate between reality and fantasy. As children grow they try to make sense of the world and this may provide a teachable moment to listen as they try to sort out the confusing messages they may hear. It’s also a golden opportunity to put accurate names to emotions: fear, sadness, anger, and pride.

How can we explain war/terrorism to our children, without scaring them?

Terrorism is frightening. That’s its purpose. But terrorism can be handled like any other danger, through realistic discussion and reassurance. Realistic discussion means acknowledging that there are people who seek to harm other people, but the chances of being harmed are small. There are many, dedicated and capable people (police, spies, and military people) working to keep us safe. And reassure them that you, their parent, will do everything you can do to keep them safe too.

Sometimes just the thought of a parent leaving is enough to cause emotional stress, even when it’s over a month before they leave, how can we help calm our children and relieve the stress?

Children react to the tension in their parent’s relationship and the thought of a spouse leaving is stressful for adults too. In the pre-deployment phase you will alternate between fear, sadness, anger, and denial. Tensions rise in the home and fights are more frequent. Maybe that’s because it’s emotionally easier to say goodbye to someone you’re angry at. The service member will be working longer hours and under stress at work. Be aware that it’s a trying time for everyone. This is a time for empathy. Remember that everyone in the family is grieving and anxious bearing his or her own burdens. Sharing with people outside the family helps. As far as you can, exercise self restraint. Turn negative spin (He’s an insensitive clod) into positive (He’s worried too) as soon as you can. Letting children know you know how they feel generally helps and, having identified a feeling, you can ask the child what would help them feel better.

Listening to children’s concerns and realistic reassurance are always in order. Sometimes the child has a specific fear that can be allayed. If your child is afraid that having one parent deploy might mean that the other will too, that can be handled by honest explanation. Fears about where the parent will live or how they will get food may be reduced by a trip to the base of pictures of the area to which they will be going. And it’s always good to reinforce the idea that, while it will be a little sad and a little scary, we will get through this together.

Some fears are normal and age-appropriate but are just aggravated by an impending deployment.

Remember that deployments are not all bad. Single parenting isn’t easy but you get more control over your schedule. You get to watch your own TV shows, eat your favorite food, and there are few arguments about parenting. Making plans with children to do something fun during the deployment can help lessen fears. Plan a trip to see grandparents, plan to go to the park or the zoo regularly, plan a special menu, plan to have friends over, plan to make regular phone calls, and celebrate holidays and birthdays. Thinking about the good aspects of the future helps take your child’s mind off the negatives and the “what if’s” of deployment.

What if, unfortunately, a parent or loved one does not return from war, how can we help young children cope?

We’ve been talking about a parent being gone and death is the most permanent form of gone. Most of the skills covered above apply to death as well as deployment: emotional and verbal honesty, listening, reassuring. If someone has died, tell the child so and then be available to listen and comfort. Get your own help so you have someone other than your child to rely on for emotional support. Be prepared to hear a variety of feelings. The death of someone close is not only sad, but makes people feel angry and frightened. Young children often think that everything happens because of them so it’s not unusual for a young child to feel guilty about a parent’s absence or death. Feelings are not facts. Feelings are legitimate to talk about without criticism. Facts can be corrected. Young children often express their feelings through play or action rather than words. Be tolerant of the need to repeat a question. Some information is just too hard to accept all at once. Grieving is hard work and it lasts a long time. Be prepared for a long haul. Remembering, memorializing, and returning to regular daily activities are all helpful.

Children understand death differently at different ages (see .

These days the more common problem is not death but life-changing injury. In that case the grief is more complicated. The fact that dad can’t play with me like he used to or mom isn’t the same as she was. Again, honesty, listening, acceptance, and reassurance are important and this sort of crisis too will last a long time.

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Like I mentioned earlier, I was able to speak with Lynn Chwatsky, Assistant Vice President, Outreach Initiatives and Partners at Sesame Workshop about their TLC program for military families.

Can you tell us a little bit about the TLC program that Sesame Workshop offers?

TLC stands for Talk, Listen, Connect and it is Sesame’s multimedia initiative to help provide resources to, as we say, our youngest service members and their families around the challenging transitions in their lives. We started this initiative thinking ‘ok let’s see what tools we can provide families around deployment’, this was back in 2006. We knew there were close to 800,000 preschoolers who are impacted by a parents deployment and we also knew there weren’t a ton of resources out there that spoke to kids, in kid speak, that helped them really find the words and the tools to communicate with the grownups in their lives, with their brothers and sisters, about these tough times for them.

The beauty of the muppets, specifically Elmo who is actually 3 1/2 , thinks like a 3 ½ year old, speaks like a 3 ½ year old, he acts like a 3 ½ year old, and as you know kids really identify with Elmo. They love him, he’s secure and safe. What we thought was how can we really use these muppets to help these kids through some of these challenging emotions and then model the appropriate behavior. Elmo’s dad is getting ready to leave to go off to do a really important job , he’s worried, he’s scared, and what the DVD shows is that he talks to his friends, his mom, he actually talks to his dad about these feelings. Then it goes through the different stages: getting ready for his dad to go, while his dad is gone they stay connected, they talk, they write letters, and then when his dad comes back and what his feelings are. He’s excited, but he’s also scared because he’s gotten into new routines, and what we try to do is model, really what a child in the military is going through. So we created what are called Outreach Kits, it has both video and print materials, in English and Spanish. Everything is also available on the web. We produced, at that point, about 500,000 of these kits and distributed them around the country. The main distribution site is through Military One Source. It was really well received, for an organization like Sesame to support the military, I think people were really appreciative. We also do assessment work and it really worked. It’s showing that it is improving dialogue, that kids are doing better, that parents are doing better because their kids are doing better and that’s one of the best things that I hear.

Then we realized the next phase was helping families who are going through changes, changes whether a parent comes back changed physically or with invisible wounds. Elmo’s best friend Rosita’s dad was injured and he’s now in a wheelchair. It’s really hearing from Rosita the struggles that she has with her dad being in a wheelchair. She’s worried that he doesn’t love her still, she’s worried that they won’t be able to do the same things they used to do, and what you learn through the muppet story is that it’s just different now. It’s a different way of dancing together, a different way of doing things together but her dad’s love for her is always going to be the same. Also with the video footage we have video documentaries of families who are going through these same experiences. So if there is a muppet story there is also documentary footage, for example where a dad has experienced TBI, PTSD, depression or an amputated leg, so not only does it model through the muppets, but also through families who are going through the same situations.

Our last resource kit that we just released this past spring is called When Families Grieve, helping kids whose parents don’t come home. This is probably one of the hardest things we’ve ever tackled here at Sesame, but such a needed resource. I was just at an event in Chicago a few weeks ago for military, specifically guard and reserve kids who have experienced the death of a parent, and this one little child was inconsolable. The grandmother came up to me at the end and apologized, of course I said don’t apologize and she said with tears “I have to thank you, this is the first time he has cried since his dad died”. We were there with Elmo and performing and giving out the resources and I thought ‘that is why we are here, we are trying to help these kids heal through some of the toughest times in their lives’.

We also did television specials, around these topic areas. The first one was hosted by Cuba Gooding Jr. and it got more into detail about the topics around deployment. The second one Queen Latifah hosted it looking at families that have been impacted by the war and have changed physically and invisibly, John Mayer was part of it, he sang a song. The last tv special was hosted by Katie Couric, as you probably know Katie Couric’s husband died when her girls were very young. What these primetime specials did was it really took the perspective of the child and how they are experiencing these things. It’s really raw, but it’s also really true and that is what has helped these kids.

In addition we have partnered with the USO and we have since 2008 traveled all over the world bringing the muppets to installations all over the world. We have put on live shows at installations in the US, Europe and Asia. We just came to the US and we are hoping to go back to Asia and just bring the muppets and get those kids singing and dancing, giving them a little break from their everyday. But also the content is really about deployment and giving shout outs to the kids like, “Sometimes I get sad when my dad has to go away, do you get sad?” and the kids scream back “Yes!” . And it’s about how to stay connected, like singing, dancing, writing letters, or calling them on the phone and that kind of stuff. We also give out our kits at these events.
We also have a social media site, it’s called Sesame Street Family Connections. It’s like Facebook for military families with the muppets. It’s a closed site and you can invite your muppets to be a part of it, they comment on your work. It’s a way of keeping these families connected and sharing and communicating and it’s very safe. Kids can navigate it.

The last thing we’ve done, which I love, is called Sesame Rooms. We provide a room in a box to deserving kids spaces within military installations where they can ‘sesamize’ a space that may be dark or dreary. There’s toys, furniture, wall decorations, books and videos and they can transform a space and make it a really happy place for kids to come. We’ve deployed 35 rooms and are about to deploy another 35. It’s amazing how something simple like this can bring such joy to these children.

We feel like we’ve created some great resources and our policy is that it is all free. We get external funding so that these materials can be free. There is never a shortage of these resources and we want everyone to be able to use them. And our work continues, we have made a commitment that we will continue to support our military families as we move forward. We are about to start work for the older kids now (6-9 year olds) with our brand the Electric Company. There are these really strong characters on it, and these characters use the power of words to really help them through situations. We are going to use the Electric Company to help the older kids use words to develop resilient skills, to talk about some of the tough things in their lives and to use their words to really guide them through some challenging times. This is about to get underway and will be ready a year from now. Because the 6-9 years old are really in with media, there will be an iPhone app, there will be a lot of digital games, activities. There will be some resources for in school and after school. We’re excited to both reach the younger ones and the older ones and I hope that we will be able to continue to do more work with everyone. We’re really committed.

What tips do you have for parents when they use this program with their children?

As a mom of young children I’m a victim of ‘I need 10 minutes to blow my hair, I’ll put in a Sesame Street video and let them watch it by themselves and know it’s totally safe’, this however is co-viewing. We realize this is not the end all be all, there is so much discussion that will happen after these materials are used and we want the discussion to happen with children and adults together. The second tip is that these are conversation starters. A lot of the reason we did these is because we heard parents didn’t know how to talk to their kids about some of these situations. What we want is for the parents to be able to have some really challenging conversations that may never have had before and let the power of these muppets guide those conversations for you. The last thing is let this be one of the many resources that you have. A part of the other thing we do is guide you to all the other information that is out there. We want you to avail yourself to the other resources that a lot of organizations are now doing as well.

Would you recommend non-military families whose children may have friends that are in military families use you the TLC program to help explain what their friends may be going through?

Absolutely. A part of what I have really been working on is guard and reserve kids, they are sort of in a unique situation where they may be the only child in their community who may be going through this. And what is wonderful about the television specials is that is exactly what it does, it makes it broader, it makes the issue and it makes these resources available to a broader community. What we’re hoping is that this is a way to bring the military and non-military community together. Our last project, When Families Grieve, was that. If you look at the television special we have four families that were featured, two of which were military families, two of which were non-military families. We were very deliberate in that, because was we realized was that this is universal. For a child who experiences the death of a parent, regardless of how their parent died, whether it was by suicide, killed in combat, a long battle with breast cancer or by a sudden accident, these kids are all experiencing the same thing. They only have one parent left, and what we want to do is make these kids realize that there is this commonality between them. When you see the muppet stories there is no talk of war, Elmo’s not in fatigues or anything like that. If you are in the military you think the story is addressed to you, but if you’re not in the military it can be much broader than that, and that is very deliberate on our part.

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After chatting with Lynn I was able to view the materials, and I have to say they truly are great resources and if you are in the military, or have just experienced a death I highly recommend that you use these resources. In the TLC kit there are postcards with Sesame characters that kids can use to keep in communication with their loved one that is deployed, and in the When Families Grieve kit there is a story book about remembering the loved one that has passed. Be sure to take a moment and visit the TLC website for more information and for links to other great resources.

For all of our families currently serving in the military who are facing deployment or are celebrating the return of their soldier we as a community truly want to thank you for your dedication and service to our country.