What Kids Need to Know about the Grown-Up Problem of Addiction

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Children huddle

Children who experience the trauma of parental addiction tend to blame themselves for what's happening. But caregivers and educators can help kids understand the truth: addiction is an illness that isn't caused by anything a child has done or not done. Listen in as host William C. Moyers asks children's therapist Jerry Moe about his work with Sesame Street in Communities to create developmentally appropriate messaging and resources to help kids everywhere who are impacted by parental addiction.

Help empower parents to have the tools to know that their kids are getting okay, so then they can focus on themselves.

Jerry Moe

0:00:23 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, an award-winning series of podcasts produced and delivered by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Each podcast focuses on an issue related to addiction. From prevention and research to treatment, current events, trends, advocacy, and of course, recovery from a substance use disorder. I'm your host, William Moyers, and I'm joined today by none other than the legendary Jerry Moe. Welcome, Jerry.

0:00:50 Jerry Moe
It's so good to be with you, William.

0:00:52 William Moyers
It's always good to be with you. I remember when I was first working at Hazelden. As we then were. And I would run into you at conferences—

0:00:58 Jerry Moe
Sure.

0:00:58 William Moyers
And I would sit there in the audience and listen to you talk on the subject that has been so important, that got so much neglect early on, which is about the impact that addiction has on children. And here we are now, all these years later, and you're the Director of all our Children's Programs at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. You've been—made such a difference in the lives of families and particularly the lives of children. Just very briefly, tell us why children are so important in the continuum.

0:01:23 Jerry Moe
Well I was at Center City a few weeks ago in Bigelow Auditorium. And you've presented on that stage many times. And what an historic stage to present on.

0:01:32 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm.

0:01:33 Jerry Moe
We're maybe 225 patients in treatment, all levels of care. And I did a lecture Changing the Family Legacy. William, about ten minutes into that lecture, I asked the audience how many of you grew up with this disease. And you know it brought me to tears because what I had to quickly do is stop counting the hands up and look at the hands that weren't raised. Which is about 12 people in the audience.

0:02:01 William Moyers
Mmm.

0:02:01 Jerry Moe
So we're talking about a disease that often is multi-generational in cycle. You know from generation to generation. Where does this stop? And so to start with kids who were growing up with this disease and to just really try to intervene on it every way imaginable.

0:02:20 William Moyers
Which is why it's so exciting what's happened between Hazelden Betty Ford, your interest in children, and Sesame Street. When we got together last time, we had just started that collaborative experiment and now it's much more than just an experiment, it's a reality. Tell us about it.

0:02:33 Jerry Moe
Well I—it's funny, I was leaving Center City coming back to Center City one more time and Sis Wenger, our dear friend—

0:02:44 William Moyers
From NACoA (National Association of Children of Alcoholics)—

0:02:45 Jerry Moe
From NACoA .

0:02:45 William Moyers
Right.

0:02:46 Jerry Moe
President and CEO of NACoA had sent me a text message. Saying Sesame Street wants to talk to us and they're interested in the Seven C's.

0:02:55 William Moyers
Seven C's?

0:02:56 Jerry Moe
The Seven C's. So—Seven C's. And I'll tell ya, I learned the first three of them. When I went to my first Twelve Step meeting in 1969. [laughs] So I didn't cause it.

0:03:10 William Moyers
No.

0:03:11 Jerry Moe
I can't control it. And I can't cure it.

0:03:14 William Moyers
That's three. [holds up three fingers on left hand]

0:03:15 Jerry Moe
That's three. And that comes from Al-Anon Family groups. And so, I learned those in Al-ATeen. Way way back when. Made a huge difference in my life. In my family. But when I became a children's therapist and we started working with boys and girls, what I realized—those three C's are important but they only tell boys and girls what they can't do. They don't necessarily tell 'em what to do.

0:03:40 William Moyers
Uh-huh.

0:03:41 Jerry Moe
And so we added the four. So I can help take care of myself by communicating feelings. Making healthy choices. And celebrating me. And so Sesame Street had found that activity they thought it was fun and simple and child-friendly. And they reached out to NACoA. What better resource could they ever reach out to that really knows about this issue? And so with Sis and I that—that led us to being on set and to really working hand in hand with Sesame Street on each and every part of this initiative on parental addiction. Sesame Street a number of years ago, and you talk about iconic, you think about that at Hazelden Betty Ford we celebrated 70 years last year.

0:04:24 William Moyers
Mmm.

0:04:25 Jerry Moe
Sesame Street celebrated 50 championing children and loving kids. But they realized that children today are growing up with so much trauma. That one of the issues they decided to look at was parental addiction. And the impact that it has. Because there's so few resources. Especially for little kids, William. So that's why this is so incredibly exciting.

0:04:44 William Moyers
And so now it's 2020, this is Season 51 of Sesame Street, and what's gonna happen?

0:04:49 Jerry Moe
Actually, Karli will be on the series this year.

0:04:53 William Moyers
Karli.

0:04:54 Jerry Moe
Karli. So Karli is she is just beautiful. Lime green with blond pigtails. Just precious, beautiful little girl. Who was first introduced by Sesame Street as a Muppet who was living in foster care. When the parental addiction initiative came up, they just continued the storyline and that Karli's mom has been just devastated by an addiction to opioids. And she needed to go to treatment to get help.

0:05:24 William Moyers
Real life.

0:05:25 Jerry Moe
Real life. And so as Karli's mom is ready to come home from treatment, that's where we pick up this story. But—and for so many women today William—

0:05:36 William Moyers
Yeah.

0:05:36 Jerry Moe
—And you know this so well—sometimes have to make a choice between do I go to a treatment, do I take care of my kids.

0:05:40 William Moyers
Yes. [nodding emphatically]

0:05:42 Jerry Moe
And Karli's mom knew she needed to get help. And so she went to do that, but in order to do so, Karli was in foster care.

0:05:50 William Moyers
So how has Hazelden Betty Ford specifically how have you and NACoA and Sis Wenger, how have you all helped to inform what's happening on the set? At Sesame Street?

0:06:00 Jerry Moe
We have been involved in the story development and all the resources that I'd love to share a couple with you.

0:06:06 William Moyers
Please.

0:06:07 Jerry Moe
Our fingerprints are on all of those.

0:06:10 William Moyers
Such as?

0:06:10 Jerry Moe
Such as rewriting scripts—

0:06:12 William Moyers
Really?

0:06:13 Jerry Moe
For the videos that were shot. Being onset and asking Sesame Street—and I giggle because there was a part of me inside says oh don't say anything, don't say anything! But shooting a segment with Karli and it was like no, no, you're missing a bit of it. And while Karli's got survivor pride, [she's] just this vulnerable little girl. And when she's talking about her mom's problem for the first time, she needed to be much more tentative and nervous. And—and then as she was accepted by Elmo and Chris—

0:06:46 William Moyers
Mmm. [smiles, shakes head]

0:06:46 Jerry Moe
—For Mr. Hooper's Store, you can just see the relief. And the joy and the excitement. And so, Sesame Street picked one program across the United States to feature on their website. Around the parental addiction initiative. And they chose the Hazelden Betty Ford Children's Program. Huge. And Cynthia Galaviz Olivas—

0:07:10 William Moyers
Yes. [nods]

0:07:10 Jerry Moe
—Who's our Supervisor, they came out and filmed her for a day. A day in the life. And Helene Photias, our Director of Operations—

0:07:19 William Moyers
Yes.

0:07:19 Jerry Moe
—Point person. Seamlessly. People at Sesame Street were here for two days, I was in Ohio. I wasn't even here. And—and they—they talked about the essence of our Children's Program. The Hazelden Betty Ford Children's Program. The Bag of Rocks.

0:07:33 William Moyers
Yeah.

0:07:33 Jerry Moe
And artwork. And writing stories. And play and fun. And the hope that's generated here. I mean the folks at Sesame Street fell in love with our space and the staff, but just the spirit of hope and optimism that's here in the Children's Program. So we were involved in that. We helped them create a storybook called Play, Talk, and Imagine. And in this storybook, so we—we rewrote it, we pointed things out, and they were—they really treated us as equal collaborators in all of this. And Sesame Street so—knows so much about kids, but what Hazelden Betty Ford and NACoA can do—

0:08:13 William Moyers
Right. Yes.

0:08:14 Jerry Moe
We know this issue. And can really inform them and—and the brilliance of Sesame Street is knowing when to ask for help to make it the best product possible.

0:08:22 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. [nods]

0:08:24 Jerry Moe
So in this storybook, it's all about Karli's mommy is just about to come home. Karli's scared. Is Mommy gonna be okay? And in the storybook, she's furiously making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

0:08:35 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Yes.

0:08:37 Jerry Moe
She says I gotta make a lot of them. And then she explains because when Mommy got sick, I learned how to make them. And that's what I ate for lunch and dinner. And sometimes I would feed Mommy. So when Mommy comes home, is she gonna be okay? Is she gonna be able to feed me? Am I gonna still need to feed her? Is she gonna use drugs again? And so, done in such a sensitive way, it's a great book that a grandparent—

0:09:06 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm.

0:09:06 Jerry Moe
—That a preschool teacher, that we use in treatment now throughout our system when a mom or dad comes to Hazelden Betty Ford and they left home a five-year-old or an eight-year-old. And really didn't have the right words to explain to a child this is where Mom's going, this is where Dad's going to get help right now.

0:09:28 William Moyers
As we know, when difficult subjects when stigmatized subjects like addiction, like the impact addiction has on children, those sorts of things, when they go public, that's a good thing. But often times it opens Pandora's Box to people who need help. So what's gonna happen when Karli is featured in the Sesame series on television and children or their parents are viewing it and all of a sudden they realize they're talking about them—where are they gonna get help? Where are they gonna get the resources?

0:10:00 Jerry Moe
Well, what's fascinating and again, speaks so highly of Sesame Street, if you go on the website.

0:10:07 Jerry Moe
What you'll find is a whole section of resources for parents. And caregivers. How do I rebuild trust?

0:10:15 William Moyers
Oh, yes.

0:10:16 Jerry Moe
For professionals, how do I support these boys and girls? Maybe when a parent is in treatment, or they've not been to treatment, or we simply can't find them. But also at the website just good, dedicated list of resources that people can call to for help. And what's amazing Hazelden Betty Ford is featured on that resource page—

0:10:37 William Moyers
Beautiful.

0:10:38 Jerry Moe
And what I'm most proud about, William, of all—

0:10:41 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm.

0:10:41 Jerry Moe
—Is there's a direct link to our Children's Program.

0:10:44 William Moyers
Mmm. [shakes head, impressed] What's been the biggest surprise for you, Jerry? I mean you've been around a long time. You've been down in the trenches for decades and if you worked as we talked about at Hazelden Betty Ford for 22 years now, in this Sesame Street collaboration, this relationship—what's been the big "Aha," the big surprise for you?

0:11:03 Jerry Moe
What a great question, William. Maybe the biggest is just a reminder that even younger boys and girls, four-, five- and six-year-olds, are more deeply affected than we ever give them credit for.

0:11:20 William Moyers
Mmm.

0:11:20 Jerry Moe
You know, as you know, boys and girls that young they don't have the cognitive development. So they can't connect the dots.

0:11:27 William Moyers
Hmm.

0:11:27 Jerry Moe
But they know that something's wrong. And way too often unfortunately, little kids think there's something wrong—you know addiction is a disease of silence and secrecy, and because nobody talks about what it is, so many little kids—that's where the seeds begin to be planted about maybe it's my fault, maybe I've done something wrong.

0:11:52 William Moyers
Mmm.

0:11:52 Jerry Moe
So then by the time they come to the Hazelden Betty Ford Children's Program whether it's here in California or in Colorado or in Minnesota, you know, you—we see the impact that it's had—

0:12:04 William Moyers
Right.

0:12:04 Jerry Moe
—When they're seven or eight years old. So I think one of the biggest things is just remembering that even younger kids are so impacted. 'Cause when you love someone, and you know and it's interesting that one of the biggest discussions we had with NACoA and Sis as well is how do we take a—such a complex subject like addiction and how do we make it simple, age-appropriate, but honest and direct?

0:12:32 William Moyers
Yes. Sure.

0:12:33 Jerry Moe
And back and forth for months, William. And what we decided is here's what we say to kids. So, you know, people have a brain sickness. And they need alcohol and drugs to feel okay. But then they act different. And then they feel bad and they need more and more. And so being able just—just to simplify, but that's the disease. And it does impact younger kids.

0:12:59 William Moyers
Mmm.

0:13:01 Jerry Moe
And now having the resources for Hazelden Betty Ford having the resources so that if I'm a counselor in St. Paul at Fellowship Club, and I've got a mom who has two young kids. And—and I'm struggling in my recovery. That counselor can now say let me give you the book. Let me give you Karli's Seven C coloring thing that you can do. With your child.

0:13:30 William Moyers
Mmm. Mmm.

0:13:30 Jerry Moe
And help empower parents to have the tools to know that their kids are getting okay, so then they can focus on themselves. 'Cause the challenge of addiction—gotta put all our heart and soul into that.

0:13:4. William Moyers
And Jerry Moe, you've put your heart and your soul not just into the problem but into the solution. And not just for the person who has the illness, but as you noted today, for the children of that person. Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule, your relentless schedule, to be with us today on this podcast.

0:14:00 Jerry Moe
Yeah and I thank you

0:14:02 William Moyers
Oh. [smiles] Oh.

0:14:02 Jerry Moe
—You have been such a light for so many years about the promise of hope in recovery for the entire family, William. So you constantly inspire me and what a gift to get to work with you every day.

0:14:15 William Moyers
Thanks, Jerry. There's strength in numbers and here we are together.

0:14:17 Jerry Moe
Together.

0:14:18 William Moyers
Jerry Moe, the relentlessly passionate, competent, and change agent that he is for all families who are struggling with addiction, thanks for joining us today. And thanks to all of you for tuning in to another edition of Let's Talk, please share this with your friends, your colleagues, your fellow travelers, your families, and especially, share this podcast with your children. We'll see you again.

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