2020 has had us all on an emotional roller coaster, kids included. Many children have experienced feelings of sadness, loneliness, fearfulness, anxiousness, and disappointment. Chicago-based writer Fern Schumer Chapman shared the following guest post on why books are an ideal tool to help children identify and express their feelings. Chapman recently wrote Happy Harper Thursdays, a picture book that explains to young kids why we can’t be with the people we love during COVID-19.
Give Children Books This Holiday to Help Them Understand Their Confusing Emotions
Many children have wrestled with powerful emotions this past year, as they have had to adjust to the pandemic’s required changes at school, at home, and with friends. Many young people are sad, lonely, fearful, anxious, and disappointed, and they don’t understand their own feelings.
Now, the pandemic will disrupt upcoming holiday gatherings and traditions as extended families won’t be able to celebrate together. These disruptions are likely to intensify a child’s feelings of confusion and loss.
Books, always a wonderful holiday gift, may be even more appreciated this year; books can be an ideal tool to help young children identify and express their feelings. Picture books are especially engaging and helpful for young readers; the images and words work together to evoke powerful emotions.
For children, reading is like role playing, where they can see the world through someone else’s eyes. Through reading, young people gain new perspectives, and learn, for example, how to negotiate friendships and handle conflicts on the playground. In addition, books build empathy in children. The capacity to empathize is hardwired into the human brain; however, this skill needs to be taught, nurtured, and practiced over time.
Simply viewing the images and reading the words on the page will not help children develop empathy and process emotion. When reading with children, keep in mind these strategies:
Pick the right book – To help children process their feelings, it’s important to find the right book. Try to read texts that explore familiar life scenarios to help children understand what they or their peers might be experiencing. At this moment, for example, children may feel sad and anxious that they won’t see their loved ones during the upcoming pandemic holidays. This is a good time to select a book that helps children sort through those overwhelming feelings.
Identify a character’s feelings – Teach children the vocabulary for their emotions. Adults who read with children can ask about a character’s emotions using simple words. For example: “Goldilocks ate all that porridge. Do you think she was hungry? How will the bears feel when they see that someone has gobbled up the porridge they wanted to eat? Do you think they’ll be angry?”
Take time to ponder – To help young readers put themselves into the character’s shoes, it’s important to stop reading periodically, set the book down, and reflect upon what has happened in the story. Researchers recommend the following thought-provoking questions to challenge a child to relate to the character’s emotions:
- How do you think the character feels right now?
- Why do you think he/she did what he/she just did?
- What would you do if you were the main character right now?
- Based on what we know about the character, do you think he/she will do what you would do? If not, what might he or she do instead?
- What would make the character happy right now?
- What do you think will happen next in the story?
As parents, grandparents, and teachers help children answer these questions, a child will bring his or her own feelings to the text. Children gain confidence and control of their environment when they can predict an outcome in a story. When adults read with children, they have the opportunity to discuss deep feelings, fostering a stronger connection and greater intimacy with a child.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” American novelist George R.R. Martin has said, “and the one who doesn’t read, lives just one.” Readers with “a thousand lives” have greater empathy and more awareness of their own emotions, and they will likely become more compassionate and community-minded people. Eventually, when readers become parents themselves, they will use these reading techniques to raise empathetic, self-aware children of their own.
Fern Schumer Chapman
Top photo by @Racool_studio at freepik.
Second photo provided by Chapman.
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