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Muppets from Sesame Workshop help explain opioid addiction to children

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The opioid epidemic affects millions of children. So the people behind "Sesame Street" are stepping in to help little kids with some big feelings about addiction and recovery. Here's WYPR's Scott Maucione.

SCOTT MAUCIONE, BYLINE: "Sesame Street" is famous for tackling hard issues for young kids. In addition to the show, Sesame Workshop has developed age-appropriate books and videos addressing all sorts of challenges that kids may face, like homelessness, autism and military parents deploying overseas. But the opioid epidemic is a newer topic.

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RYAN DILLON: (As Elmo) Elmo knows that Karli's mommy was away for a while.

MAUCIONE: An estimated 2 million children live with a parent who has a substance use disorder. Tevis Simon remembers what that was like. Growing up in Baltimore in the 1980s, she never knew which mother she would see each day.

TEVIS SIMON: I knew that if my mom had her drugs, then she was fun Mommy. And if she didn't, then she was mean Mommy.

MAUCIONE: But "Sesame Street" was a refuge for her, and she would have loved to hear the characters reflect what she was really going through.

SIMON: If there were a Muppet at the time that was talking about, you know, parents going through addiction and how that makes their children feel - that they feel alone and scared, and some children are abused verbally and physically - it would have helped me not go into this downward spiral.

MAUCIONE: The curriculum from Sesame Workshop is aimed at children aged 1 through 6 to help answer questions they may have about addiction. The content won't be featured on the television show, though, but there are videos, stories and coloring books available for free online. And Sesame Workshop just got a grant to create even more of them. Sesame Workshop says that social workers and therapists can download them when working with young kids and families. In a video that's already available, a neighbor on Sesame Street explains to the Muppets Elmo and Karli why Karli's mother needs to attend meetings about recovery.

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DILLON: (As Elmo) What meeting does Karli's mommy have to go to?

CHRIS KNOWINGS: (As Chris) Well, buddy, Karli's mom has been having a hard time, so in order to help her get better, she goes to a meeting with her group. They all sit in a circle.

HALEY JENKINS: (As Karli) They talk about grown-up problems. She goes every day so that she stays healthy.

MAUCIONE: Jeanette Betancourt is the senior vice president for U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop.

JEANETTE BETANCOURT: The resources that are out there now tend to focus more on youth, on adults. And even if they're dealing with parenting, they are very often not including the focus on young children, often because there's this myth somewhat that with young children, they don't understand or they may not be aware of the deep impact this has on children.

MAUCIONE: Child psychologists and addiction experts help developed the messages. But they can communicate their feelings and ask for help. Ruth Paris is an expert in early childhood trauma at Boston University. She says that Sesame Workshop is filling a large hole in children's mental health treatment.

RUTH PARIS: Enabling a young child to recognize that they can have a host of different feelings that could focus a lot on sadness - sadness around the separation from the parent who might be in a treatment setting and need to separate from them. Those simple messages of, you're allowed to have your feelings; it's not your fault, I think are really important.

MAUCIONE: And while that doesn't solve the problems children may be experiencing at home, it can help them understand what's going on and build resilience as they grow. For NPR News, I'm Scott Maucione in Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Maucione