Children’s books assist children in dealing with strong feelings and tragedy

The topics in children’s books can open a floodgate of discussion about difficult life-lessons and life events your child may encounter in the news or in their family.

Everyday life events can put even a well-balanced adult on an emotional roller coaster. Divorce, remarriage, relocation, family member deployment, unemployment, a death of a relative or family pet, natural disasters and tragedies in the news are all occurrences that can stir up strong emotion and feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and fear.

\When adults have difficulty putting life events into perspective and struggle to deal with their own feelings, children in the family are often left out of the conversation and imagine the worst. Because children aren’t in the discussion, they may actually believe that things are worse than what they actually are. It is normal to want to shield the youngest members of your family from what appears to be a harsh reality. It can be very difficult to approach an emotionally charged topic with a young child. Where do you begin? How do you approach the topic?

Children’s literature is one way to support the social emotional health of young children and provides an avenue for parents and caregivers to address topics that are sometimes difficult to discuss. Children learn quickly that they aren’t alone when they hear a story about a character who is experiencing a similar family issue. Books can increase a child’s knowledge base so he will be able to experience life changing events with the information he needs to adjust to change. Children can learn problem solving skills by exploring what the characters in a book have done in a similar situation and whether the solution might work for their own situation. There are children’s books that inform and support nearly every emotionally charged topic and life experience and they are as close as your book shelf or your local library.

An article in “Beyond the Journal” from the National Association for the Education of Young Children makes several recommendations for choosing literature that can assist in helping children cope with strong emotion:

  • Choose books that are well written. You will want a book that has an intriguing story line and lots of illustrations. Look for books with interesting characters that can give a voice to a child’s concerns and have an ending that provides hope.
  • Be sensitive to your child’s circumstance and personality. Books for children are not “one size fits all.” Choose carefully. Your child may need additional time to digest information about an event before he is ready to listen or have a discussion. Offer more than one book selection that addresses the topic.
  • Provide lots of opportunities for responses. A child may want to stop at each page and talk, or she may wait until you finish the story before entering into a conversation. Be prepared for the “why” questions and give honest answers that are appropriate to the child’s age and developmental stage. You don’t need all the answers. You may want to explore the story stretching ideas database available from eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care that links activities to stories for many children’s book titles.
  • Honor your child’s comments and responses. Children’s responses to a story will be as different as their personalities are from each other. Don’t be surprised if a child requests a particular book over and over or refuses to sit and listen to any book right now.

To address events that may have a life-changing impact on children, it is important that you provide a positive environment, routine and consistent modeling of positive social skills, and the assurance that your relationship with the child is strong and secure. A list of recommended children’s books that deal with specific social emotional topics is available through the Center for Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). Ask for help in choosing books from your local librarian or a child’s school teacher. You may want to explore two additional lists of book available from NPR and Reading Rockets.

All children will experience difficult situations as they grow and develop and children will develop coping skills in many different ways. Sharing a wide variety of stories with young children can teach about empathy, problem solving, differences, loss and love, as well as a host of other life lessons. Explore children’s literature today and be prepared for the eventual difficult discussions that will occur when life happens to your family. For more articles on child development and parenting, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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