'Sesame Street' tackles drug addiction with new muppet character

Over the years, children around the world have learned a thing or two from the beloved Sesame Street characters, whether it’s the building blocks of the English language with Big Bird or basic arithmetic from Count von Count. Now, the iconic children’s television show has a muppet named Karli to teach them about a more difficult subject: America’s opioid crisis.

A new muppet named Karli, whose mother is a recovering addict, appears in an online-only segment to teach younger audiences about how to cope with parental addiction as a part of Sesame Street in Communities, an initiative that partners with direct-service organisations that serve vulnerable children and families, including non-profits and social work organisations.

In the online series, Elmo and other muppets learn about addiction, “a sickness — but not the kind you catch like a cold,” and how to help their friend Karli cope with her mother getting treatment for her “grown-up problem.” The educational programming uses language that makes the complex issue easy to understand for its young audience. In addition to explaining what an addiction is and what a parent may be going through, the show also tackles the blame children feel when their parents have an addiction.

“I used to think a lot of things were my fault, especially my mom’s problem,” Karli confides in Elmo. “But she told me no, it was a grown-up problem and it wasn’t because of anything I did. And she said that she loves me no matter what.”

Sesame Street's new muppet Karli pictured with Elmo. Karli has a mother who is struggling with addiction. Source: Sesame Street
Sesame Street's new muppet Karli has a mother who is struggling with addiction. Source: Sesame Street

The series tackling addiction later introduces Karli’s human friend, Salia, whose “mom and dad have the same problem as my mom: addiction.”

Karli adds, “When my mom was having a hard time, I had lots of big feelings. I felt like I was the only one. Now, I met other kids like Salia and we can talk about it together.”

In the live-action film, Salia, 10, explains that addiction is “getting attracted to something so you keep doing it over and over again. It makes people feel like they need drugs and alcohol to feel OK.” She goes on to talk about her own parents’ addiction and using coping mechanisms including journaling, drawing and meditation — something she and her mother would do together while she was undergoing treatment.

“It feels good to help other children who went through what I went through,” Salia says in the online segment. “I’m proud of Mom and Dad for asking for help and not using drugs and alcohol anymore.”

The iconic children’s educational television show isn’t known to shy away from difficult topics — it’s tackled death, incarceration, homelessness, foster care and more though its programming and Sesame Street in Communities — and parental addiction is no different.

According to America’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people in the United States die every day from an opioid overdose. As legislators on the state and federal level deal with the aftermath of the opioid crisis and focus on getting treatment for those struggling with addiction, Sesame Street aims to help the 5.7 million children nationwide under the age of 11 who have parents dealing with substance abuse, according to creators.

“We were hearing more and more — I”m sure because of the growing crisis with addiction — there was such a need to help young children who were dealing with family members that were struggling with addiction,” Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s president of social impact and philanthropy, tells Yahoo Lifestyle, who discovered this need through their Sesame Street in Communities partners.

“That’s where Sesame Street says what can we do to help children cope with those issues, overcome these issues and build resilience. That’s why we chose to address this issue.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children dealing with the trauma of parental addiction can “face social, emotional, physical and mental health challenges that last into adulthood,” which can lead to school failure, substance abuse of their own and health conditions like obesity and heart disease. In addition to the trauma of witnessing a guardian grapple with substance abuse, one in three children are placed in foster care because of parental addiction.

“Opioid addiction can make it difficult for parents to provide children with what they need, including not just safe housing and food but supportive and loving relationships. And too often, it can deprive children of their families, a reality evidenced by rising foster care placements,” says Scott D. Berns, the president and CEO of the National Institute of Children’s Health Quality.

“All of this makes one thing clear: The opioid crisis really is a crisis for our country’s children.”

For this reason, Sesame Street decided to welcome Karli to the Sesame Street neighbourhood to tackle addiction, but “through the lens of a child.”

Sesame Street's new muppet Karli in a scene with Elmo. Source: Sesame Street / YouTube
Sesame Street's new muppet Karli has been introduced so children whose parents are battling with drug addiction don't feel so alone and can ask for help. Source: Sesame Street / YouTube

“Karli first and foremost will help children who have a similar situation to feel less alone — and that’s so important to children whose parents are struggling ... For a child to know that it’s OK to talk about, and for a child to know that it’s OK to ask for help and for a child to know that it’s not their fault and that other children are experiencing this too is hugely important,” says Ms Westin.

Organisations that partner with Sesame Street in Communities that are on the front lines of the opioid crisis say Sesame Street’s resources on parental addiction are one of few that exist today and will be critical to the work they do.

Fred Muench, the president of the Centre on Addiction and former CEO of Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, hopes the new programming will help children — and adults — affected by the addiction crisis reach out for the help they need.

”Kids who are affected by addiction need to feel like they are not alone. They don’t have to be isolated. It is not their fault,” Mr Muench tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“They need to understand that there are others out in the world who are going through the same thing, even characters on TV.”

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