How “Sesame Street” Addresses Issues Like Addiction

When the children’s show includes a character whose mom is in recovery for addiction, it fosters belonging, tolerance, and empathy, says Tufts professor
A woman facing forward, with a piece of art in the background. When Sesame Street includes a character whose mom is in recovery for addiction, it fosters belongingness, tolerance, and empathy, says Tufts professor
“Having characters that children can relate to may bring a certain sense of acceptance and peace,” said Sasha Fleary. “It may make their situation less taboo and increase their willingness to open up about what they’re experiencing.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
November 13, 2019

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For fifty years, Sesame Street has been at the forefront of children’s television, not just in education, but in diversity and inclusiveness. It provides a model for what it is to be accepting, empathetic, and kind to others.

The show broke new ground again this year, introducing Karli, a six-and-a-half-year-old character who is in foster care. Last month, viewers learned that Karli is in foster care because her mother is in treatment for addiction.

Sasha Fleary, the Evans Family Assistant Professor in Cognition and Learning at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, applauded the show, saying the impact of parent addiction on children and families is usually not given the attention it deserves. Social support like the show offers is critical to children’s resilience in the face of parent addiction and foster care, she said.

“Having characters that children can relate to may bring a certain sense of acceptance and peace,” said Fleary, a clinical psychologist with an expertise in pediatric psychology who specializes in health literacy and preventive health in underserved families. “It may make their situation less taboo and increase their willingness to disclose and open up about what they’re experiencing.”

Fleary, who is founder and director of the Child Health Equity Research Lab, focuses her research on how to empower underserved families to improve their physical and mental health with health literacy skills. She is teaching a course now with a semester-long project to bring awareness of the effect of the opioid epidemic on children and families.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Fleary about why Karli is a valuable addition to the diverse offerings of Sesame Street, what challenges children in foster care and kids with parents struggling with addiction are experiencing, and how we as a community can best support them.

Tufts Now: What do you think about Sesame Street’s approach to talking to children about things as unsettling as addiction and foster care?

Sasha Fleary: Through the introduction of characters experiencing these difficult circumstances, Sesame Street’s approach fosters belongingness, tolerance, and empathy. Their approach benefits all the show’s viewers—it provides a relatable friend for the child viewing the program who is experiencing the same situation, introduces these topics to children who would otherwise not be exposed, and provides a model for empathetic interactions between children.“A character like Karli gives them a friend they can relate to, someone to normalize their feelings, and a model for navigating the complex world and situation they are experiencing,” said Sasha Fleary. Photo: Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop

What emotions are children in this very difficult situation going through? Why might it be helpful to see themselves in a character like Karli, on a platform like Sesame Street?

Children going through this situation may feel very alone. They may feel abandoned by their caregivers, and they may also feel like they are the only ones experiencing this difficult situation. A character like Karli gives them a friend they can relate to, someone to normalize their feelings, and a model for navigating the complex world and situation they are experiencing. Watching how Karli is embraced by friends can also be reassuring for children in foster care due to parent addiction, making them more likely to open up and use their peers and other adults as a support system.

What kind of support do these children need most from the adults and peers in their life?

These children need stability. They need to feel like the adults and peers in their lives are going to be around for a long time. They need to be able to trust that they won’t be abandoned. They need to feel that they are understood, and that this experience does not define them. Stability also includes feeling normal—it’s important to have adults and peers interacting with them in similar ways that they would act with other children. Feeling normal also helps with children not feeling othered or pitied.    

Sesame Street is no stranger to addressing complicated and difficult topics. In the past, the show has tackled such issues as hunger and homelessness, imprisonment, and autism. What is the effect on children experiencing these conditions?

Representation matters. Having characters that children can relate to may bring a certain sense of acceptance and peace. It may make their situation less taboo and increase their willingness to disclose and open up about what they’re experiencing. Seeing how the other characters interact with the typical characters on the show may provide a sense of safety for opening up and what to expect from peers and adults.

Do shows like this educate and create empathy in children about other children experiencing difficult situations?

Most definitely. Most children would not have knowingly encountered other children in these situations. However, these situations are unfortunately becoming more common, and children need models for reacting to the situations. Some parents may be proactive in talking to children about the difficult situations other children experience, but it may be too abstract for children to grasp. So having an example, as well as a model of appropriate empathetic responses, goes a long way in building children’s social-emotional development and in counteracting issues around intolerance that children in difficult situations may face.

Kalimah Redd Knight can be reached at kalimah.knight@tufts.edu.