Karli has had a pretty tough life for such a young muppet. When we first met Karli on Sesame Street back in May, we learned that she was in foster care. Today, Sesame Street reveals the reason she’s not living at home: Karli’s mom is struggling with addiction.
And, of course, she’s not alone. Approximately 8.7 million children under the age of 18 have lived with at least one parent who had a substance use disorder. And that’s the point, according to Sesame Street: Karli is relatable.
“Sesame Street has always looked at ways to comfort children, especially in tough situations,” Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of US social impact, who worked on Karli’s story, tells SheKnows. “One of the things we found was that there were very limited resources for parental addiction, especially for young children. We wanted to explain what parental addiction was, and, more importantly, provide the hope and resilience for understanding it and moving forward as well.”
Karli’s story is being told online through the Sesame Street in Communities program, which features several resources, including videos, a storybook, talking points for parents on how to explain addiction in age-appropriate ways, and even professional development materials for therapists and educators. Plus, everything is in English and Spanish.
It’s taken the team at Sesame Street approximately two and a half years for Karli’s character to come to fruition, and everyone we spoke to thinks it’s brilliant.
“It’s incredibly important for kids to be able to go online to watch a show they love and see characters that look like them,” psychologist Cindy Graham tells SheKnows. “We’re still struggling to have accurate, diverse representation, and when you do see your story represented, it helps you understand that you’re not alone. These kids often feel their life isn’t normal, but initiatives like this one help them understand that they’re not different from their friends; they just have a life path that is varied from many kids they know. I’m glad that we’re finally beginning to see these stories represented on major kids’ channels.”
In fact, Fred Muench, president of the Center on Addiction who is himself in recovery from heroin addiction, explains to SheKnows that this validation and mirroring is a game-changer for kids. One of the mantras in addiction recovery is “you are not alone” — but for little kids, that may be hard to believe.
“It’s so isolating for both for the parents as well as kids, and this will really help them see that they’re not alone,” he said. “I’m so excited for this because we haven’t touched on this issue like we’ve touched on other issues. There’s still a lot of work we need to do here. This is groundbreaking. There are 20 million people in this country struggling with a substance use disorder and about 10% who are in recovery. Many kids in foster care have a parent who is actively struggling or in early recovery, so there’s a lot of kids who are going to relate to this.”
In creating Karli’s story, Sesame Street had several goals, one of which was to make adults aware of just how much young children are affected by a parent’s addiction; it’s something we all need to recognize, whether or not addiction is part our own family story.
“People have different kinds of addictions,” Muench explains. “It could be a situation where a parent or caregiver might not be around much because they’re going out for drug-seeking and not coming back. Or there’s the parent who has an alcohol problem and is in the house but yelling at their kids over not putting away the dishes one day, but is loving the next. While there’s no one specific characteristic or trait in all kids with addicted parents, that uncertainty, fear of abandonment, and isolation…are certainly a few of the main issues.”
We love Sesame Street for the lessons and skills they teach young children, especially when it comes to empathy. Karli provides a much-needed lesson for us all, as trying to understand a child who is living with an addicted parent isn’t easy for us adults, much less young children.
“Although it depends on the age, kids experience an enormous multitude of emotions when they have an addicted parent,” Christine Storm, the regional director of education at Caron Treatment Centers, tells SheKnows. “They can feel guilt, sadness, anger, embarrassment and confusion. They often struggle with how to handle those emotions, which can sometimes cause them to act in ways that get them in trouble in the classroom, cause emotional outbursts or they might behave in a way that their friends don’t necessarily know what to do with it. And it’s just because they’re so little, and they’re having all these emotions and don’t necessarily know where to put them.”
Sesame Street, as always, goes the extra mile and introduces us to real children in difficult situations. In this series, Karli meets Salia, a 10-year-old girl whose family has also struggled with addiction but is now thriving. You can almost see the stigma chipping away as Karli learns Salia’s story.
“Addiction is something that is a part of our society, and it’s not a moral failing, it’s a disease,” Storm adds. “When Sesame Street introduces a character like this, parents will start talking to their kids about that fact from a young age. Hopefully, we can reduce some of the shame that kids sometimes feel if they have parents who have addiction. This can also help parents have conversations with their kids about how they can support their classmates.”
Karli’s story doesn’t end when we learn about her mom’s addiction; we learn that Karli’s mom has been through a treatment program and now has the skills and support necessary to bring Karli home. Yet Karli wonders what will it be like to have her mother back again.
“We’re also providing an understanding that she can express her feelings, and we show how she’s seeking support from her friends on Sesame Street, says Dr. Betancourt. “Karli also has a support group, where she explains that there are other children like herself who have had parents experiencing addiction, and they come together as a way to talk about it.”
Unsurprisingly, Sesame Street ends by bringing a message of hope: Karli gets to go home! We can’t wait to see how Karli’s mom’s new life in recovery evolves with her daughter by her side.