Well-Being//

How Sesame Street Is Offering Hope to Children Affected by Parental Addiction

The nonprofit organization’s new initiative is showing children everywhere that they're not at fault, and they're not alone.

Zach Hyman/ Sesame Street in Communities
Zach Hyman/ Sesame Street in Communities

For 50 years and counting, Sesame Street and our beloved Muppet characters have been a source of comfort to young children dealing with difficult circumstances. At Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the show, we are committed to meeting children’s most pressing needs—and, over five decades, we have seen those needs change over time. So we continually ask our philanthropic and community partners, “What are the biggest challenges facing children today, and how can Sesame uniquely play a role to help?” When we began hearing that more and more young children across the country were affected by parental addiction, we wanted to get involved in whatever way would be most impactful, so we turned to expert advisors to help guide us.

We learned that the prevalence of parental addiction is on the rise, with 5.7 million children under age 11 living in households with a parent battling addiction—and that doesn’t include the countless children affected who aren’t living with their parent due to separation, divorce, incarceration, or death as a result of their addiction. And, while addiction is often seen as a “grown-up” issue, it impacts children in ways that aren’t always visible. For young children, having a parent battling addiction can be tremendously stressful and painfully isolating. And despite those staggering statistics, there were virtually no resources created to help young children cope with the challenges of parental addiction.

We set out to change that. In close consultation with our advisors, we developed a set of resources designed to build resilience, offer hope, and promote optimism among children and families and the providers who serve them. The materials are all part of Sesame Street in Communitiesa nationwide initiative that provides free, bilingual easy-to-use tools for community providers and caregivers on the toughest issues children face.

The face of this latest initiative is Karli, a 6 ½ year old Muppet whose mom is struggling with addiction. A vibrant little girl with green fur and yellow pigtails, children find Karli easy to relate to, and her storyline helps us deliver 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. Through videos, activities, professional development materials, and more, we’re giving children and families tools to develop the coping skills that will help them overcome the toughest of times.

Since we introduced the new resources this fall, the response has been overwhelming. For Jerry Moe, the National Director of Children’s Programs at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the initiative is a game-changer. “For children who connect to Karli, hearing, ‘It’s not your fault—you are not alone, and there are safe people and places that can help,’ opens a path to hope and healing,” he said. The initiative “fills a huge void for millions of families hurt by addiction and helps kids be kids again.”

The trauma of parental addiction can have lasting impacts on a child’s health and wellbeing, but the effects of traumatic experiences can be mitigated with the right support from caring adults. As we work to meet children’s evolving needs, we are committed to the continuing expansion of Sesame Street in Communities, with its rich resources—filled with trusted Sesame Street Muppets—designed to foster the critical adult-child engagement that can set healing in motion.

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