Using books to help kids understand their feelings is an effective way to help our children learn to manage emotions. Feelings can be confusing when we don’t have the words to express them; they can also be overwhelming and scary when we keep them to ourselves. Knowing how to describe our feelings is important to our social-emotional health and development. So knowing its okay to express them and share them with others is important.
I discussed this topic with Shevonne Hunt on Kinderling Radio which you can listen to here or read the article below.
By four to six years old, most children can recognize and understand the basic emotions: happy, sad, angry and afraid. More complex emotions (such as jealousy, pride and guilt) are built on the basic emotions. A good understanding of the basic emotions is important before they can be introduced to the more complex emotions.
Research indicates that reading fiction promotes empathy. For little ones, picture books offer an additional tool for teaching emotional literacy as illustrations serve as visual context clues. When a happy, scary, or frustrating event occurs in a story, pause and look at the picture together. “Look at her – how do you think she’s feeling right now?” Examine characters’ facial expressions, how they are standing, and what they are doing? Also ask, ‘have you ever felt that way? And if so, ‘when?’. This prompts the child to think about themselves in that situation or recall a time or event when they may have felt similar to the character in the book.
What sorts of books are there?
Most children’s picture books do hold some type of emotional message, however in this specific genre there are a couple of styles to consider.
First there are books that clearly state what they are presenting. By that I mean they are titled in a way that identifies the content and what sorts of emotions or challenges they are focussing on.
For example you may find a book that is called ‘It’s Okay to Feel Sad?’ It may take readers on a journey through various scenarios that show shades of sadness. Being sad that your football team lost, is very different to feeling sad because you got into trouble at school. They may help to give perspective on the emotion showing how the character may deal with that sadness, who they may turn to for help and/or how they move on or deal with that sadness. The really good ones in this style will be entertaining, sometimes funny and have engaging and interesting illustrations to keep the attention of the young reader. An example of this style, is a new book being released in October by Josh Langley. In his book, ‘It’s Okay to Feel the Way you do’, Josh helps kids to identify and make friends with their feelings. It’s designed to empower children.
There are also books that have more of a storyline like any other picture book, except the characters may be experiencing a trauma or situation that causes emotional challenges. The titles may not be as clearly worded as a book about emotions and there tends to me more subtlety in how the characters respond rather than them being explicitly labelled. Children will find these appealing as they may find the characters relatable and therefore may be able to identify aspects of their own emotions. These may be of help to children who have trouble expressing their emotions. They also might want to pick up the story and read it again and again.
EK Books, a wonderful Australian publisher, publishes these sorts of books regularly and are filled with rich stories and colourful, engaging characters. Three of my favourites include ‘Don’t Think about Purple Elephants’ which focuses on a child who has anxiety related to nightmares, ‘The Fix-It Man’ which delves into a little girl’s grief over the loss of her mother, and ‘Grandma Forgets’, which deals with dementia in the elderly.
Extending on from this you may also be able to find stories about characters experiencing very specific challenges. For example the Arthritis Foundation released a book by Nicky Johnston that was called ‘The Worst Pain in the World’ about a child who is living with juvenile arthritis. Other organisations may have similar titles as a port of call for parents looking for resources.
It may be that if a carer is looking for support, either one or a combination of both styles is helpful depending on the age and personality of the child.
Like with all other book purchases or library lending, I always advocate for children to be involved in book choices, so take them along, find a few titles in the area of focus and then let them pick the most appealing for them.
More information about the titles above can be found below:
‘It’s Okay to Feel the Way you do’ by Josh Langley
‘The Worst Pain in the World’ by Nicky Johnston https://www.nickyjohnston.com.au/childrens-book-about-juvenile-arthritis/
‘Don’t Think about Purple Elephants’ by Susan Whelan https://ekbooks.org/product/don-t-think-about-purple-elephants/
‘The Fix-It Man’ by Dimity Powell
‘Grandma Forgets’ by Paul Russell