Mari Payne, Director Education and Outreach at Sesame Workshop International, South Africa

The month of October is Mental Health Awareness Month and is dedicated to focusing on educating the public about mental health and reducing stigma and discrimination. Usually, we consider mental health in terms of the adult population, but the mental wellbeing of our children must not be neglected. Mari Payne, Director Education and Outreach at Sesame Workshop International, South Africa considers the role of the caregiver and parent on a child’s mental health, and what one can do to help children deal with their big feelings.

Payne explains, “Caregivers have a profound impact on children’s health and well-being, and they play an active role in creating the social environment in which children develop. For children to thrive, they need responsive, nurturing, and consistent caregivers who are attentive to children’s holistic needs at all stages of development”.

Payne provides the below advice for maintaining mental health and well-being and coping with big feelings.

Firstly, parents need to be able to recognise the signs of big feelings in children. A big feeling is a strong emotion that we feel in our bodies but don’t know how to talk about. “Physiologically, children may complain of tummy ache or headaches, shortness of breath or sweaty hands. Behaviourally they may experience nightmares, have trouble sleeping or a change in their eating habits. Caregivers may notice the child is more irritable, cries more, is clingy and seeks attention. They may worry about family members, repeatedly ask certain questions and avoid certain behaviours or conversations. Children struggling with mental health can also argue, fight more often or even purposely break things. Sometimes we need extra help from caring adults to support children with these big feelings,” says Payne.

Once a caregiver or parent has identified that a child is having ‘a big feeling’, Payne provides some tips to help the child work through the feeling.

She explains, “Caregivers should not suppress children’s questions about a loss or traumatic event, but offer clear, compassionate answers. It’s often a natural response to say, “Not to worry.” Instead, children should be given ample opportunity to express and discuss their concerns in a safe place”.

Payne advises notes a few basic steps.

1. Help your child to name and validate their feelings
2. Comfort and speak soothingly
3. Help your child manage their big feeling
4. Reduce big feelings in the future

She highlights that COVID-19 represented an extreme shock to family well-being, with significant effects on families that were already vulnerable. These many layers of relationships and environments interact with each other – ultimately influencing how children develop and become resilient.

Identifying and working through a child’s ‘big feeling’ is critical, but it is also important that parents and caregivers understand that they cannot pour from an empty cup. “You need to take care of yourself to be able to care for your children. If you need a moment to calm down and compose yourself, take a step aside, make yourself a cup of tea before you engage your child again. Even a few minutes of “you time” can help you recharge so you can parent at your best. Stress causes wear and tear on a person, inside and out,” she notes.

Payne suggests these tips when parents feel overwhelmed:
• Sleep: When your little one lays down to rest, try to do the same.
• Take a ten-minute vacation. As you’re bathing your child, soak your hands in the warm water and give them a little massage, taking long deep breaths as you do so.
• Keep a journal by your bed. Before you fall asleep, remember something funny, kind, or surprising that your child did that day. Capture the memory and when feeling down, you can read your memory journal.
• Fill your cup: Get a nice big glass of water and find a comfy spot to sit. Let your child know, “I’m just going to sit and (read/think/breathe) while I drink this glass of water.” Explain that you’ll be available once the glass is empty. Children have difficulty keeping track of time, this is a concrete way to help them understand that you are taking a few minutes to yourself.
• Turn on the tunes! Never underestimate the power of music to change the mood. Put together a playlist of songs that make you feel good.

“Due to the challenges presented by the pandemic, the current season of Takalani Sesame was developed with the mental health of children in mind,” explains Payne. Season 13 focuses on teaching children and parents about “Big Feelings,” like feeling scared, angry, frustrated, or sad. The season’s lessons will help children identify and name big feelings and provide strategies to manage these emotions.

Using true to life situations (like feeling left out when someone else is chosen to play a game first or feeling frustrated if you don’t get something right first time), the Takalani Sesame friends learn techniques to help them cope with Big Feelings, like Belly Breathing, Counting to Five or Drawing It Out. The season’s aim is to inspire caregivers and children to think and talk about all the big emotions they may experience, and caring adults can help children apply these strategies in their day-to-day lives.

“By helping children build social-emotional skills, we’re giving them the tools they need to thrive both in school and in life,” Payne concludes.

Season 13 of Takalani Sesame airs on SABC 2 weekday at 15.30. The episodes are available in English on Mondays, isiZulu on Tuesdays, Sesotho on Wednesdays, isiNdebele on Thursdays and Afrikaans on Fridays, and now include sign language shows episodes airing between 19 September and 28 November 2022.


About Takalani Sesame

Takalani Sesame is the ground-breaking South African children’s programme that has educated and entertained children for more than 22 years. Takalani Sesame was named the Best Children’s Programme at the South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTA) in 2021 and promotes early childhood education while supporting South Africa’s mother-tongue based education policy with television, radio, digital content, and community and classroom engagement

For more information, please visit

About Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop is the non-profit media and educational organization behind Sesame Street, the pioneering television show that has been reaching and teaching children since 1969. Today, Sesame Workshop is an innovative force for change, with a mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder. We’re present in more than 150 countries, serving vulnerable children through a wide range of media, formal education, and philanthropically funded social impact programs, each grounded in rigorous research and tailored to the needs and cultures of the communities we serve. For more information, please visit

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