The popular children's show "Sesame Street" has revealed that a character's mother is battling addiction, acquainting kids with the opioid crisis that has devastated swaths of the country.
A fuzzy green Muppet introduced in May is in foster care because her mother is in recovery, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the show, revealed this week in a series of videos. The materials are part of an initiative called Sesame Street in Communities that offers online-only resources to caregivers trying to explain difficult issues to children.
"Having a parent battling addiction can be one of the most isolating and stressful situations young children and their families face," Sherrie Westin, president of social impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, said Wednesday in a statement. " 'Sesame Street' has always been a source of comfort to children during the toughest of times, and our new resources are designed to break down the stigma of parental addiction and help families build hope for the future."
"Sesame Street," which has aired since 1969, frequently introduces characters with a variety of life circumstances to teach its young viewers empathy for others. A homeless Muppet and a character with autism have made appearances on the show. The latter became controversial last month when it was used in a campaign to encourage early screening and diagnosis of autism. Speculation about the sexual orientations of Bert and Ernie, meanwhile, ran wild when "Sesame Street" writer Mark Saltzman said publicly that he had always thought of them as gay.
By choosing to tackle the sensitive topic of addiction, some experts told The Washington Post that Sesame Workshop got it right. Teaching kids to deal with challenges and to show empathy toward struggling families is a healthy response to the severity of the opioid epidemic, experts in early childhood development and in children hurt by addiction said.
"There's far too many children who are experiencing adverse events, this being one of them, to let this go unaddressed," said Christy Tirrell-Corbin, executive director of the Center for Early Childhood Education and Intervention at the University of Maryland.
Sesame Workshop's decision to tackle the issue of addiction was greeted mostly with applause from people who said the resources help break down stigma, suggest ways to cope with trauma and teach kids that they're not alone. Some parents and commentators, however, expressed concern that young children were not ready to learn about addiction.
Columnist Jessica Heslam argued in the Boston Herald that "Sesame Street," which is watched by kids as young as 2 years old, should "let toddlers be toddlers."
"Had 'Sesame Street' created a program dealing with addiction geared toward older kids, that would be a different story," Heslam wrote. "Rolling out a cute character as the face of the drug epidemic that's marketed to toddlers crosses a line."
One in 8 children under age 11 in the United States lives with a parent who has a substance-abuse disorder, Sesame Workshop said. That number does not include kids who don't live with an addicted parent because of separation or divorce, death or incarceration.
In one of the organization's videos, Karli, the Muppet whose mom has an addiction, introduces viewers to Salia Woodbury, a real-life 10-year-old whose parents are recovering from addiction. Salia talks about how meditation and journaling have helped her to cope.
"For any sickness, people need treatment to feel better," Salia says. "My mom and dad got treatment, and that makes me feel happier for them. I remember the hard times, but I write down things that I feel inside."
A video called "Lending a Hand" teaches that for kids in need of support, "holding the hand of a friend can really help you feel better." In another video, Karli learns that her mother's addiction is not her fault.
"I used to feel like a lot of things were my fault, especially my mom's problem," she tells her friend Elmo. "But she told me, no, it was a grown-up problem; it wasn't because of anything I did. And she said that she loves me, no matter what."
Sesame Workshop's strategy of posting the addiction-related resources online enables caregivers to choose whether to show them to their children and, if so, how they want to discuss the content, Tirrell-Corbin said.
Younger children are concrete thinkers who need real examples to understand a concept, Tirrell-Corbin said. To convey that addiction is a sickness, a parent might remind a child of when their grandmother was very sick and couldn't do things she normally could have done. Parents of older children, Tirrell-Corbin said, can offer more specifics about addiction.
Caregivers should think about their child's stage of development and what they are ready to learn, Tirrell-Corbin said. She said parents should give their kids objective information that avoids judgment, focuses on compassion, and teaches strategies for supporting other people and dealing with your own feelings.
"There are very few of us on the face of this earth who are immune to stress and tragedy and events outside of our control, so I think when you talk about that, you help children develop resilience and stress management," Tirrell-Corbin said.
Parental drug addiction is the second-most-common form of recurring trauma for children, after neglect, Tirrell-Corbin said her research shows. That fact, she said, would make her support "Sesame Street" if the show addressed addiction in its regular story line, instead of just online. The show could indicate in advance that it planned to tackle the topic so caregivers could choose to opt out, Tirrell-Corbin said.
Sesame Workshop decided to create addiction-related videos and articles because children's organizations that the nonprofit partners with said they needed substance-abuse resources, said Jerry Moe, who advised Sesame Workshop on the initiative. Moe is the national director of the Minnesota-based addiction-treatment nonprofit Hazelden Betty Ford Children's Program.
Sesame Workshop and its advisers aimed to create a variety of materials so caregivers could share the ones that matched what kids already know, Moe said. The video "Lending a Hand" never mentions the word "addiction," while in another video, Elmo asks his father to explain what addiction is.
"Are boys and girls ready to hear that?" Moe said. "That's up to whatever's already going on in their lives and making the resources fit the kids and not making the kids fit the resources."
The goal was not just to describe addiction, Moe said, but also to teach kids how to talk about their feelings, whom they can approach for help and activities that can help them feel better. The resources are intentionally general so children who need to know details can learn them from family members, Moe said. The generality, he said, also reflects that although the opioid epidemic opened eyes to the need to teach kids about substance abuse, many children's family members struggle with other kinds of addiction.