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How Sesame Street Is Teaching Kids About The Opioid Crisis

Yesterday, Sesame Street used a new puppet character to attempt to introduce substance abuse issues in a way that kids could understand. 

Karli, a newcomer to the Sesame scene, has mossy green fur and a cute, softspoken voice. In a discussion with Elmo, she spoke about a series of meetings she goes to with her mother. 

Karli introduces the problem by mentioning that her mother attends a group session every day so that she stays healthy because she has trouble taking care of herself, and then speaks of other adults who meet with her, all with the same problem. She speaks fondly of a separate kids-only session that she goes to where a circle of kids whose parents are all in the adult program all talk about their experiences with their family. 

After the description, nearby characters accept this program and practice as a good and healthy behavior, emphasizing the importance of seeking help when a person can’t handle something on their own. 

The mention does not describe what specific issue her mother has, what behavior she is having difficulty controlling, or any elements about what addiction is. By choosing to focus on only the parts that a child of a parent with a substance abuse disorder would notice, the show keeps its message relevant to kids. 

The show’s creators shared an insight on why they felt it was important for them to cover this national crisis: Around one in three children who live with a parent with a substance abuse disorder will enter foster care due to the risks of their situation. The creators also shared that nearly 6 million kids under 11 are currently living with such a parent.  

They felt they had the ability to reach a lot of children who may have been affected by the opioid crisis in a way that had not been focused on by other emerging support systems. 

Sesame Street has a long history of tackling difficult issues, whether by introducing new characters (Such as Julia, a Muppet with autism) or by expanding on the backstories and experiences of existing Muppets. The show has tackled racism, death in the family, sensitivity issues, poverty, and homelessness. 

Sesame Workshop launched a new initiative aimed at supporting children who find themselves under the support of a parent with a substance abuse disorder. The initiative page links to a number of videos that explain addiction and addiction recovery in a way that kids can understand, fully acted out with a host of core Muppets.  

Jerry Moe, National Director of Children’s Programs at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and a key actor in this initiative, spoke to its importance. 

“There have been precious few resources to help young children,” says Moe. “This initiative is a game-changer for the important work we do with kids at Hazelden Betty Ford and for professionals everywhere on the front lines of our nation’s addiction crisis. 

“For children who connect to Karli, hearing, ‘It’s not your fault—you are not alone, and there are safe people and places that can help,’ opens a path to hope and healing.” 

Written by Joseph Detrano, CAS Science Writer
Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies.