America’s addiction crisis is now so pandemic that it features on one of the most popular TV programs for children. As was revealed in a recent episode, one of the Muppet characters on “Sesame Street” is struggling with a big, “grown-up” problem. Show producer Sesame Workshop created a series of videos in which young Karli talks to her friends about her mom’s struggle with addiction. Karli came to “Sesame Street” in May to stay with a foster family because her mother was “having a hard time.”
The description of the YouTube video “Lending a Hand” reads “Children struggling with the effects of their parents’ addiction need the support of safe friends, family members, and other children dealing with the same problem.”
The series marks an interesting effort to advance the public dialogue about the disease of addiction—and what it may mean for children. It attempts to explain to a young audience that the “grown-up” problem of substance abuse is “not something you can just stop doing.” The show is trying to reassure viewers that addicted parents are not cruel and irresponsible people who don’t love their children but rather are struggling with a devious disease. Karli calmly explains that her mom needs some time to recover which is why Karli is staying with her “for-now” parents at the moment.
Karli is not alone. According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 1 in 8 children (8.7 million) aged 17 or younger have lived in households with at least one parent who had a past year substance use disorder (SUD). Many of them move on to foster care. “After more than a decade of declines in the foster care caseload in the United States, cases have risen steadily since 2012,” according to a research letter published in July. One suggested explanation is the escalating addiction crisis.
“Sesame Street” only hints at the real toll that children take from having parents with SUD. If living with addicted parents isn’t traumatizing enough—you can easily correlate six of the ten most commonly screened for adverse childhood experiences or ACEs to substance abuse in the household—removing children from their parents and given them into foster care because of a substance use disorder is piling more trauma on the already traumatized child.
Addiction is driven by a multitude of complex, interacting factors and research has shown that some people get more easily addicted than others when using the same substances. The difference is typically a genetic predisposition and exposure to extreme stress, especially of the kind of stress that amounts to a traumatic experience. Geneticists know that “substance use disorder often runs in families. That’s because there is an inherited component, meaning it can pass from parent to child by way of genes. For this reason, your family history offers clues about how vulnerable to addiction you might be.”
In Hooked, a short guide to the mechanics of addiction, Arwen Podesta, M.D., offers the simple formula: Biology (genetics and epigenetics) + Stress (especially trauma) + Drug = Risk of Addiction.
It is worth noting that children removed from their addicted parents are strongly affected by the first two elements: they have direct relatives with addiction and they have been severely traumatized. All that is missing, is access to addictive substances that activate the reward system in their brain to numb their pain.
Some experts believe that childhood trauma is at the root of the entire addiction problem. In an interview with California Healthline, Dr. Gabor Maté, a well-known addiction specialist and author, explained that “all addictions—alcohol or drugs, sex addiction or internet addiction, gambling or shopping—are attempts to regulate our internal emotional states because we’re not comfortable, and the discomfort originates in childhood.” And while not every traumatized person automatically becomes addicted, “every addicted person was traumatized,” said Maté.
On “Sesame Street,” Karli shows her friends some breathing exercises they could do if they feel sad or anxious. She also reassures them that it’s “okay to be sad, mad, or scared” and that it’s “good to talk about those things.”
Sesame Street has never shied away from difficult topics, but we sure have come a long way from teaching pre-school kids the alphabet.
The Harmony Foundation will be hosting Hazelden Betty Ford Children’s Program from May 28th to the 31st at our Recovery Center in Ft. Collins. This program is for Children between the ages of 7 and 13 who have parents or loved ones living with a substance use disorder. For more information about this program or how to register please contact Lindsey Chadwick at Lchadwick@hazeldenbettyfod.org or call 303-745-2275.