At-Home Learning is an early childhood education resource (for ages 2-8) providing families, educators and community partners with at-home learning activities, guides, and expert advice.
This year has been challenging for grown-ups as well as children. Emotions vary from anxiety and anger to sadness, and it’s natural to want to shield children from them. However, allowing children to feel the inevitable anxiety of 2020 is actually one of the most loving things parents and caregivers can do — as long as they do so in an honest and sensitive way.
For his book “The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive” researcher W. Thomas Boyce asked California children to draw pictures after the 1989 earthquake in Loma Prieta, California. Boyce discovered that children who drew honest depictions of the earthquake and the devastation it left behind were healthier weeks after the earthquake, while those who drew happier pictures were more likely to come down with illnesses. Being honest and not covering the truth with rose-tinted images and a false sense of security helped the children stay healthy.
What does this mean for parents and caregivers dealing with children’s emotions? It means not blocking learning opportunities for children to sit in less pleasant emotions including anxiety, anger and sadness. It also means normalizing these emotions, and a great way to do that is through books. Clinical psychologist to children and families, Amy Monn, Ph.D. has curated this children’s book list to teach children it’s OK not to feel OK. The list is organized by books to help children learn about each emotion and books that help them feel it. Use the prompts to discuss each book with your child.
Dr. Amy Monn, Ph.D. writes:
Fear or Anxiety
One of the most important parts of my job as a clinician and a parent is helping children learn about the function or purpose of each emotion. I often start with the question “Why do we feel scared?” I ask my clients, “What would happen if you didn’t feel any fear and a bear was chasing you? You might just give that bear a hug!” to show that fear and anxiety play a critical role in keeping us safe. I also explain that feeling afraid doesn’t always mean we’re actually in danger and need to run away. Sometimes we feel anxious because we are challenging ourselves or experiencing something new, and those uncomfortable feelings are just part of the process. It’s critical that our children learn that fear is a normal and healthy emotion and we can choose to do hard things, even when we feel afraid.
Written and illustrated by Bernard Waber
“Courage” starts by explaining that there are lots of different kinds of courage. There’s the classic kind — the kind we associate with acrobats or firefighters. But there’s also the everyday kind, like the courage it takes to talk to new people, try new food or jump off the diving board for the first time. Before you read this book with your child, ask them what it means to have courage. Many children will give an answer like, “To never be scared” or “To not feel fear.” As you read the book, you can ask “Do you think the firefighters that go into burning buildings don’t feel scared? Would it be smart for them to not feel fear at all?” You can then help clarify that being brave and having courage actually means feeling scared but doing it anyway. Talk to your child about all the times they show courage.
Questions to Ask Your Child
- What does it mean to have courage or be brave? How do people feel when they’re being brave?
- How do firefighters feel when they go into burning houses? Would it be smart to not be afraid at all? So can feeling afraid be useful?
- When are you brave? What were some of the brave things you did today?
“Racoon on His Own”
Written and illustrated by Jim Arnosky
This is one of my 4-year-old son’s favorite books, and if you ask him why he’ll say, “Because it’s a little scary!” “Racoon on His Own” is a story about a very cute baby raccoon that climbs into a boat and drifts away from his mother. It taps into some pretty primal fears about being away from your caregiver and, as my son points out, has a scary snake and a scary alligator! As you read the book to your child (especially for the first time) try not to be too quick to provide comfort or assure them that everything will be OK. By allowing them to experience some mild anxiety about the fate of the raccoon, you’re letting them know that feeling a bit scared and unsure is OK and something that they can manage. Plus, it enhances the feelings of joy and relief that come at the end of the book when mamma and baby are reunited! If your child has a strong reaction to the book or is afraid to finish, it’s a good time for a quick lesson on courage; they are experiencing some anxiety, but they are safe and can choose to keep going. Provide lots of snuggles and a reminder that books usually have happy endings, and then keep reading. Let them experience the pride of being brave!
Questions to Ask Your Child
- How does this book make you feel? Where is that feeling in your body? This feels a little scary to me too. Let’s see what happens next!
- Have there ever been times where you had to be away from your family? How did you feel? What happened next?
Anger can be a tough emotion to discuss for parents and kids alike. Scientists think we experience anger when our rights are being violated and it encourages us to stand up for ourselves. I like to ask my clients, “What would you do if someone stole your lunch and you didn’t feel any anger? You would probably just go hungry, right?” Of course, we wouldn’t want to take away another person’s rights or hurt — physically or emotionally — the person who took our food, but we need to do something to get our lunch back and anger provides the energy and motivation to do so. Once again, it’s vital that children learn that the feeling itself is not wrong or bad. It’s always OK to be angry, and we can choose what to do with that anger.
“When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry…”
Written and illustrated by Molly Bang
This is a book about a little girl who feels like her rights have been violated. Her sister takes her toy, her mother takes her sister’s side, and to top it off, she trips on a toy and hurts herself. Is Sophie ever angry now! She has an angry outburst before running outside to her favorite tree, where she is able to calm down and be comforted by nature. She then returns to the loving arms of her family. Through bright colors and vivid pictures, the book helps children visualize the process of getting angry, from being a volcano ready to explode, the explosion itself, and then the slow taper that often results in tears. It helps children understand that anger is temporary and that “out of control” feeling will fade if you give it time. This book can evoke strong reactions in some parents. “Isn’t this just going to encourage children to have angry meltdowns? Shouldn’t she experience some consequences for her behavior?” parents and caregivers often ask. I point out to them that, although Sophie does some yelling, she doesn’t hurt anyone with her words or actions, she isn’t aggressive or destructive (there are some pictures of toys flying, but I think even young children understand this is a visual metaphor) and it appears that running to the backyard and climbing the tree are actions that her parents have approved in advance. Often, children (and adults!) need to be reminded that anger itself is perfectly OK, as long as everyone is safe. You can use the book to help your child create an anger plan: a set of preapproved coping strategies they use when they feel angry. You can also discuss what behaviors are and are not OK in your household and if there’s a place like Sophie’s tree where your child can go while they wait for the anger to pass (my son likes to curl up in his bean bag chair). Kids can even create their own version of the book, where they write and draw about how they feel when they get angry and illustrate their anger plan.
Questions to Ask Your Child
- How do you feel when you get angry? Like a volcano or a balloon or something else?
- Was it OK that Sophie got angry? What about what she did when she got angry? Did she do anything that was unsafe or caused harm to another person?
- Think of the last time you felt angry. Tell me about it. What did it feel like and how long did it last?
- What can you do when you get angry? Let’s come up with a plan like Sophie’s.
“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”
Written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Ray Cruz
This book typically doesn’t evoke a feeling of anger in children but it does describe some pretty common experiences that may remind children of a time when they felt frustrated and angry. Being teased by siblings, getting yelled at by parents, losing things you care about, these are all experiences that most children and families will find familiar. I find the relentless negativity of the book to be refreshing; at no point does Alexander cheer up or look on the bright side of things, and there’s no lesson about terrible, horrible, no good or very bad days other than “some days are like that.” Children love the book because it’s honest and relatable. Some days, we just feel bad. As you read the book, ask your child about whether any of Alexander’s experiences in the book have happened to them. How did it make them feel? Don’t argue with the feeling or their perception of the event, just listen. You can ask if they ever had a terrible horrible day of their own and share a day that felt that way to you. And if you must end on a positive note, ask what they think happened to Alexander the next day. You can help your child see that angry feelings on terrible days are normal and valid, just like the happy or simply OK feelings they experience on other days.
Questions to Ask Your Child
- Have you ever had a really bad day like Alexander’s? What made you feel angry that day?
- How about today? What made you feel angry or frustrated?
- Do you think most days are made of mainly things that make you angry or mainly things that make you happy? Or a little bit of both?
Sadness is definitely one of the tougher emotions to explain in terms of its purpose. It’s different from anxiety and fear, which are both emotions that prompt us to do things like run away or stand up for ourselves. Instead, sadness is an emotion that causes us to pause and turn inward. It forces us to take critical time to rest after we’ve experienced something sad, painful or traumatic. Sadness also gives us the space to consider what to do next and accept support from others. Naturally, most of us don’t enjoy being sad, but we can help kids learn that it’s a normal and necessary part of life.
“The Boy Who Didn’t Want to Be Sad”
Written and illustrated by Rob Goldblatt
In this book, a boy makes the decision that he isn’t ever going to be sad. He decides that the best way to achieve this goal is by getting rid of everything in his life that has the potential to cause sadness. What he quickly realizes is that the list of things that might make you sad is very long. Toys might break, parents might scold, pets might die. He ends up completely alone in a room where he even removes the lightbulb when he realizes he would be sad if it burnt out. Finally, the boy has the simple but profound realization that the many of the things that make him sad are the same things that make him happy. He lets all of the messy complicated experiences back into his life along with the messy complicated feelings that come with them. The book ends with the wonderful lines, “And the boy lived happily ever after. And sadly …. And totally loving life.”
Questions to Ask Your Child
- Did the boy succeed in never feeling sad?
- Is it possible to feel happy all of the time? Why or why not?
- What are some things (people, objects, experiences) in your life that make you happy but also make you sad?
Written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
I recently read this book to my son for the first time. I’ll admit I’d been putting it off because I remembered it as being very depressing and bleak! Sure enough, the story of the businessman whose greed and hubris leads to the destruction of Lorax’s home by cutting down the Truffula trees, poisoning the water and sky and driving away the animals was just as sad as I remembered. What I was struck by most was the desperate helplessness of the Lorax as he tries and fails to save the trees that have been assigned to his care. When you read this book to your child, you’ll likely experience the same urge I had to give it a happy ending. And the ending does have the potential for hope! But make sure you allow your child to experience the sadness as well. Ask your child what was sad about the story (my son said, “When the bears had to leave because their tummies hurt”) and share what you found sad as well. Once you’ve sat with the sadness for a minute, ask them about the seed that the Lorax left behind. With a bit of prompting, my son was able to suggest that the seed could be used to grow more trees and the animals might come back. I made sure to ask if this would take a long time or a short time (“A long time”) and if it would be easy or hard (“Very, very hard”). I said I also thought it would be very hard, but there was still hope.
“What’s hope mean?” he asked.
“It means that even when things seem very very sad, we know that if we work hard, things can get better. That feeling that things can get better is called hope.”
“Oh.” And then he went to play with his dinosaurs.
What I hope is that, by letting my son experience some sadness about an imaginary world and its dark and onerous problems while in the safety of our living room with his parent at his side, it will prepare him for the time when he must face some of the large and seemingly impossible problems in our world. Not with despair and not by assuming a happy ending, but head-on with honesty and hope.
Watch the animated TV special of “The Lorax” from 1972 below.
Questions to Ask Your Child
- Was that a sad book or a happy book? What parts did you find the saddest?
- Why did the Lorax leave a seed?
- What does hope mean? Do you think the ending of the book was hopeful? Why or why not?
Meg Raby is a speech language pathologist, children’s book author and reviewer of children’s books published by many well-known publishing houses including Chronicle Books, HarperCollins and Gibbs Smith. She runs two Instagram accounts, @bedtime.stories.forevermore, where she highlights only the best in children’s literature, and @mybrotherotto, where she advocates for autistic children and adults while championing the message that everyone should be included.
Amy Monn, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist to children and families from Green Hills Family Psych in Nashville, Tennessee.