Sesame Street takes on opioids crisis as muppet’s mother battles addiction

Creators introduce bright-green Karli: Nothing else out there addresses substance abuse for young kids from their perspective

Sesame Street is taking a new step to help American kids navigate the thornier parts of life in America: the opioids crisis.

Sesame Workshop is exploring the backstory of Karli, a bright green, yellow-haired friend of Elmos whose mother is battling addiction.

Sesame Street creators said they turned to the issue of addiction since data shows 5.7m children under the age of 11 live in households with a parent with substance use disorder. Americas opioid crisis has grown steadily worse in recent years. The Department of Health and Human Services reported 10.3 million people misused opioid prescriptions last year, and an average of 130 people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses.

Theres nothing else out there that addresses substance abuse for young, young kids from their perspective, said Kama Einhorn, a senior content manager with Sesame Workshop. Its also a chance to model to adults a way to explain what theyre going through to kids and to offer simple strategies to cope.

Jaana, standing left, and Sam Woodbury, from Irvine, California, and their daughters Salia, 10, seated right, and Kya, 6, with Karli and the puppeteer Haley Jenkins in New York. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

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, Einhorn said.

The initiative is part of Sesame Street in Communities resources, which offer online child activities and assistance to parents.

This summer in Manhattan, puppeteers, producers and show creators crammed into a small studio in the not-for-profit organizations Manhattan headquarters to tape some of the upcoming segments on addiction.

Karli, voiced and manipulated by the puppeteer Haley Jenkins, was joined by a young girl whose parents are in recovery.

Hi, its me, Karli. Im here with my friend Salia. Both of our parents have had the same problem addiction, Karli told the camera.

My mom and dad told me that addiction is a sickness, said 10-year-old Salia Woodbury.

Yeah, a sickness that makes people feel like they have to take drugs or drink alcohol to feel OK. My mom was having a hard time with addiction and I felt like my family was the only one going through it. But now Ive met so many other kids like us. It makes me feel like were not alone, the puppet continued.

Right, were not alone, Salia responded. And its OK to open up to people about our feelings.

In the segment, Karli and Salia each hold up hand-drawn pictures of flowers, with multiple petals representing big feelings like anger, sadness and happiness. They offer ways to feel better, including art and breathing exercises.

The segment leans on carefully considered language. Creators prefer addiction to substance abuse and recovery to sobriety because those terms are clearer to children. Despite the subject, the mood was light in the room, largely thanks to Jenkins calm and empathic manner.

I know it feels awkward because people dont normally have conversations standing shoulder-to-shoulder, she told Salia between takes. This is weird, but trust me, it looks good.

Production members clap for Salia Woodbury, left, on the set with Karli and Jenkins. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Karli had already been introduced as a puppet in foster care earlier this year but viewers now will understand why her mother had to go away for a while.

The introduction of her backstory follows other attempts by entertainment companies to explore the issues of addiction, including The Connors on ABC and Euphoria on HBO. Substance and prescription abuse has claimed the lives of prominent entertainment figures recently as well, including the rappers Mac Miller and Lil Peep.

The online-only segments with Karli and Salia are augmented with ones that feature Elmos dad, Louie, explaining that addiction is a sickness, and Karli telling Elmo and Chris about her moms special adult meetings and her own kids ones.

The childrens therapist Jerry Moe, the national director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Childrens Program, helped craft the segments and resources, saying he was grateful to help since there has been a paucity of resources for the preschool age-group.

These boys and girls are the first to get hurt and, unfortunately, the last to get help, he said. For them to see Karli and learn that its not their fault and this stuff is hard to talk about and its OK to have these feelings, thats important. And that theres hope.

Sesame Street has a long history of masterfully tackling sensitive issues. The show broached the subject of death in 1982, after one of its stars, Mr Hooper, passed away. The show has also touched on racism and adoption and introduced a muppet on the autistic spectrum during its 50-year run.

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