“Sesame Street has always been real-world. It’s not a fantasy, it’s not a fairy tale. One of the things that sets us apart is respecting children and dealing with real-world issues from a child’s perspective.”
~ Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice-President of Global Impact and Philanthropy, Sesame Workshop
50 years ago, Sesame Street was shown on television for the first time. Since then, it has become a global institution, beloved by children around the world who eventually grew up and are now parents and grandparents to new generations of viewers.
While Sesame Street is a lighthearted program that teaches younger children basic social and educational lessons, the show’s producers have never shied away from adult themes such as:
- Foster care
- Parental incarceration
But in October, Sesame Street presented a mature subject not typically discussed on a children’s TV show: parental substance abuse
Addiction is a “Grown-Up Problem”
“I used to think a lot of things were my fault, especially my mom’s problem. 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.”
~ Karli, a young Muppet placed in foster care
In the Spring of 2019, Sesame Street introduced Karli, a six-and-a-half year-old bright green and yellow little monster who is a friend of Elmo. At first, Karli was only shown in foster care, without giving a specific reason. But in October, Karli revealed that was placed with the foster family due to her mother’s addiction.
These serious segments were only presented online, with Karli telling Elmo that at first, she blamed herself for everything, including her mom’s problem.
Addiction Affects Little Monsters and Little Girls
“When I was little, my Mom and Dad had to leave, and I had to stay with Grandma and Grandpa. My parents were struggling through a bad time with addiction. They had to go to a place to help them feel better.”
~ Salia, a 10 year-old girl whose parents both struggled with addiction
In another segment, we meet Karli’s friend, Salia, a little girl who had to live with her grandparents while both of her parents checked into rehab. The family’s story is sad and inspiring at the same time
Sad, because Salia talks about how hard it was to live apart from her parents, explaining, “They were gone for 60 days, but it felt like 60 years.” Even today, Salia can’t completely forget, saying, “I remember the hard times.”
Inspiring, because both her mother and her father are shown to be successfully in recovery, and their little family has now grown to include three little sisters. Salia copes with her feelings by journaling, art, and especially, meditation, which she learned while visiting her mother in rehab.
Now, Salia even teaches controlled breathing to other children with addicted parents, proudly saying, “It feels good to help other children who are going through what I went through.”
Helping Young Children Understand Addiction
“Addiction is a sickness. Addiction is getting too attracted to something, so you keep doing it over and over again. It makes people feel like they need drugs and alcohol to feel okay. And they can’t stop doing it and they aren’t acting like themselves.”
Sesame Street writers carefully used simple language that young viewers could easily understand. For example, they substituted “problem”, “addiction”, or “sickness”, instead of the newer clinical term “Substance Use Disorder”.
They also simplified the complicated consequences of SUD into easier-grasped personal theme. For example, Karli talked about her “big feelings”, like sadness, fear, happiness, and anger. Simple strategies were shown to help young viewers cope with any big feelings they might be having.
Kama Einhorn, a senior content manager for Sesame Workshop, talked about handing the subject of addiction in an age-appropriate manner, saying, “There’s nothing else out there that addresses substance abuse for young kids from their perspective,”
“Even a parent at their most vulnerable – at the worst of their struggle – can take one thing away when they watch it with their kids, then that serves the purpose.”
Ending the Stigma
“My mom was having a hard time with addiction and I felt like my family was the only one going through it. But now I’ve met so many other kids like us. It makes me feel like we’re not alone.”
When they are very young, children may only understand substance abuse in a very vague way knowing only that their parents sometimes act grumpy or sleepy or silly. But living with an addicted parent often means skewed survival skills — they learn to play extra-quietly or they become the caretakers of hung-over or sick parents.
But as they get older and start making the connection between their parents’ drug use and drinking and their behavior, they can begin to feel isolated and ashamed because their family isn’t like other people’s. Like Karli, they may even think that it is somehow their fault — “Maybe if I behaved, Mommy wouldn’t drink.”
But Sesame Street sends a positive messages to counter such fears. Ms. Westin says that the goal of the online content and resources is “to break down the stigma of parental addiction and help families build hope for the future.
“Having a parent battling addiction can be one of the most isolating and stressful situations young children and their families face. Sesame Street has always been a source of comfort to children during the toughest of times.”
What This Means to Your Family
“My parents help us to stay safe. They say they work very hard to stay healthy, so that our family stays healthy. Now that Mom and Dad are in recovery, we can do fun things together…I’m proud of Mom and Dad for asking for help, and not using drugs or alcohol anymore. And they’re proud of me, for just being ME.”
Sesame Street helped its young viewers understand that their parents’ problems were not anyone’s fault, because it is a sickness. Children were shown and that it was okay to have “big feelings” about what was happening. And in the segment that introduced Salia, they got to see a family that was happy, healthy, and back together.
In other words they were shown the promise of successful recovery.
As Salia says, “Going through tough times is harder for families, but when they get to the end of it, they end up stronger.”
Since 1978, Chapman House Behavioral Health Centers has helped fulfill that promise. As the top drug and alcohol rehab program in Orange County, California, Chapman House is the most-trusted resource for individuals and families impacted by the disease of addiction.
To get immediate help, contact Chapman House TODAY.