It would be lovely if all children could be shielded from adult problems, but that is sadly not the case. Sesame Street has never pretended it was, and since the show's inception it has discussed big problems in ways that even very little kids can understand. Now it is trying to help the 1 in 8 children who have at least one parent with a substance use disorder.
Karli is a green and yellow 6-year-old Muppet who has been in the foster care system because her mother has an addiction. Now that her mother is home, she's talking to Elmo and other Sesame Street regulars about this "grown-up problem."
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"My mom was having a hard time with addiction, and I felt like my family was the only one going through it," she says in a video featuring a little girl named Salia, whose family is also affected by addiction. "But now I've met so many kids like us, Salia. It makes me feel like we're not alone."
Karli made her online debut earlier this year on Sesame Street in Communities, an online resource for parents, caregivers, educators, and community organizations. In May, her videos focused on the fact that she was living with a foster family, like an estimated 36% of kids in the system due to drug use.
The program has added videos explaining addiction, teaching kids that their parents' sickness isn't their fault, and showing them ways to cope. "Karli's mommy has a kind of sickness and she had to get some help," Elmo's father explains in one video. "Addiction makes people feel like they need a grown-up drink called alcohol or another kind of drug to feel okay. That can make a person act strange in ways they can't control."
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While Karli isn't appearing on Sesame Street on TV, the Sesame Street in Communities program hopes that videos, interactive games and articles can be a valuable tool in teaching kids these very difficult concepts.
"What Karli does is she helps bring to life an issue that a lot of people think of as a grown-up issue, and don't understand the impact on young children," Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop's president of social impact and philanthropy, told the Today show. "When you understand the impact it has on young children, and the trauma that it can cause, the impact that has on their healthy development, you realize why it's so important that we're creating tools to help address these issues."
Sesame Street in Communities tackles other topics, such as homelessness, divorce, health issues, and grief—all in both English and Spanish. As much as we want to keep our children away from any of these difficulties, it's such a relief to know there's help for when we can't.