‘Sesame Street’ Tackles The Subject Of Addiction

“Sesame Street” introduces the topic of addiction to young viewers with the bright green muppet character Karli.  Sesame Workshop, the production organization behind the beloved “Sesame Street” show, has created a series of videos that includes 6-year-old Karli talking to her friends about her mom’s struggle with drug addiction. The episodes will be featured in the “Sesame Street in Communities” project, which offers supplemental online content that is free to parents, providers, and caregivers. The series is designed to help children from tough circumstances deal with the stigma surrounding their difficult upbringings.

During a scene in which Elmo and Karli are playing together with blocks, Karli opens up about her mother’s addiction problem. Earlier this year, the character was introduced to the show as a muppet in foster care but viewers didn’t know the reason why Karli was in the child welfare system until now. Karli tells Elmo that her mom “was away for a while because she had a grown-up problem.” Elmo reassures her that her mother’s condition isn’t her fault and that she shouldn’t feel responsible.

A 10-year-old girl named Salia Woodbury is also featured in the various episodes as she understands what Karli is going through first-hand – her parents are in recovery in real-life. Salia joins Karli to reassure kids of parents that are suffering from addiction that they’re not alone. “My mom was having a hard time with addiction, and it felt like I was the only one going through it,” Karli tells Salia. “But now I’ve met so many other kids like us.”

Jaana Woodbury, Salia’s mother, categorizes opioid addiction as “a huge crisis” and is happy that the show is covering such issues. She said the special series “kind of takes away the stigma and the judgment, and it encourages people to be open-minded.”

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Overcoming Stigma With Sesame Workshop

In a statement, Sesame Workshop said that there are currently about 5.7 million children in the U.S. under the age of 11 that live in households with a parent that has a substance use disorder. That’s approximately 1 in 8 children, and that figure doesn’t include kids who aren’t living with a parent due to separation or divorce, incarceration, or death as a result of their addiction. According to Sesame Workshop, Karli’s story shares the “words children need to hear most: You are not alone. You will be taken care of. Addiction is a sickness, and, as with any sickness, people need help to get better. And most importantly: It’s not your fault.”

The segments that feature Karlie and Salia also include dialogue from Elmo’s dad, Louie, who explains to viewers that addiction is something that affects a person like a sickness. The show also covers the topics of support group meetings by Karli telling Elmo about her mom’s special adult get-togethers and her own kids’ ones. At the end of each online segment, viewers are referred to free online resources in both English and Spanish that include videos, storybooks, digital interactives, and games to help better understand the subject matter.

The national director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Children’s Program and licensed children’s therapist, Jerry Moe, helped craft the Karli segments and resources. Moe says he’s grateful to be able to be a part of the process as there’s a lack for resources about addiction for the preschool age group.

Addiction is often seen as a ‘grown-up’ issue, but it impacts children in ways that aren’t always visible. Having a parent battling addiction can be one of the most isolating and stressful situations young children and their families face.

- Dr. Jerry Moe, National Director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Children's Program

“Sesame Street” has always strived to be a source of comfort to children during trying times, and the show wants to be able to give kids the tools to cope with the difficult feelings that stem from their parents suffering from addiction. Sesame Workshop plans to continue covering tough subjects of stigma through the “Sesame Street in Communities” web project series.

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Jena Hilliard

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  • Jena Hilliard earned her Bachelor’s of Arts degree from the University of Central Florida in English Literature. She has always had a passion for literature and the written word. Upon graduation, Jena found her purpose in educating the public on addiction and helping those that struggle with substance dependency find the best treatment options available.

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