How stories can help children with anxiety

Child psychologist Amy Wilson-Hughes gives some practical advice for using books and stories to help kids who are struggling with anxiety. Parents, caregivers and teachers: bookmark this one!

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There aren’t too many people who make it through life – especially the early years – without experiencing some form of anxiety. Childhood is pretty much an endless succession of new experiences: learning to be apart from your primary caregivers; learning the rules and routines of countless new situations; learning to navigate increasingly complex social interactions.

For a small proportion of children, this anxiety becomes disruptive to their ability to progress socially, academically or developmentally, and they need help to get back on track. For many, however, simply learning about anxiety – how to speak about it, and how to respond to it – is all they need. And books can help.

Learning to cope with emotions

Everything a child will ever know, they must first learn.

Much of a child’s first few years are dedicated to observing, decoding, and repeating the words and behaviours of the adults and other children around them. Emotions are one of the many things that children must attempt to make sense of – both in themselves, and in others.

For most of us, learning emotions begins with a process called mentalisation – our caregivers naming the emotions that they see us displaying: ‘Gosh, what stompy feet you are doing! And your voice is the loudest I’ve ever heard. You must be feeling very cross with me.’ Caregivers might also use their own emotions, or the emotions of others around them, as opportunities to learn. ‘Connor is crying, isn’t he? Why do you think he’s crying? What can we do to help Connor feel a little bit less sad?’ For children, this gives them both the words to name these feelings erupting inside their bodies and brains, and the knowledge that we can communicate our feelings and needs to others.

Fairly quickly, children learn the big four: happy, sad, angry, scared. They also, more slowly, learn appropriate responses to each feeling – how to react behaviourally to themselves and others when these emotions arise. And, generally speaking, this process of narrating and wondering is all that is needed.

Unless you find yourself with a child who is particularly anxious.

Like most emotions, anxiety is hard to describe. Essentially, it involves three parts: a judgment that a situation, person, or object poses a threat to us in some way; a ‘fight or flight’ physiological response to that threat – often felt in the chest, stomach and/or limbs; and the strong desire to never feel that way again which leads to the avoidance of the perceived threat. In some ways, anxiety can be described as the fear of fear itself.

The difficulty with managing anxiety in children is twofold. First, adults work hard to protect children from their own personal anxieties, which means that children often have very little to work from when it comes to modelling their behaviour. While parents are often willing to own up to feeling sad or angry, they are less likely to say, ‘Sorry, darling, I wasn’t listening, I was worrying about how we’re going to afford the power bill.’ Second, the behavioural signs of anxiety are often very subtle or entirely internal, making it difficult for parents to mentalise on behalf of their children. While anger has volume and fear comes with widened eyes and a dropped jaw, anxiety hides behind hesitant smiles or sweating palms or an invisible pounding heart.

So how can we teach children about this thing that they cannot hear from us and that we cannot see in them? The same way we teach them about dinosaurs and space and princesses and little yellow diggers.

We read them stories.

How stories can help

There are two effective ways to use stories to support children in their learning about anxiety. The first is the more simple path: reading them books that are specifically written about anxiety or the struggles of anxious characters. There are some wonderful books out there designed to help children learn anything that may be missing from their anxiety-management arsenal. Books like The Great Big Book of Feelings and Happythoughts Are Everywhere are great options to help children of all ages broaden their emotional vocabularies and toolkits without specifically targeting anxiety or focusing on managing particular issues.

For children who have some anxieties beginning to make themselves known or who you suspect are struggling with anxieties untold, try The Huge Bag of Worries (great for early primary) or Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears (suitable for pre-school and up). Both of these books do a lovely job of normalising anxiety and gently showing children that these anxieties are largely unfounded and certainly unhelpful, without being dismissive or condescending. If you’re looking for something created in New Zealand, take a look at Maia and the Worry Bug (which is available in English or Te Reo Māori) and the other books from the same creators.

When it comes to helping children understand and combat specific anxieties, you can’t beat The Darkest Dark for children who are afraid of the dark, or Actually, I Can for children who struggle to let their adventurous spirit fly. Why Do I Feel Scared? is a fantastic reminder that the times when it’s hardest to be brave are also some of the most important, especially when it comes to standing up for ourselves; it’s an excellent read for children who are having difficulties with dominant peers.

The second option is using general children’s books as prompts for discussion and learning. This is best when the child in question is particularly sensitive about their anxiety and may respond better to a more gentle approach.

Whenever a situation arises in a story that you have an inkling your child may have some level of anxiety about, pause (or return to it later, if you have a militant page-turner on your hands!). Wonder with them about how the character is feeling, and how other characters might feel in their position. For example, ‘Do you think Jimmy’s feeling a bit worried about getting on the bus? He doesn’t look very worried, does he? I wonder if he’s secretly feeling a bit worried on the inside, in his body. Do you ever feel a bit worried on the inside even when you’re trying very hard to be brave? I do. Sometimes my tummy goes swirly and my hands get all shaky and my voice goes quiet in my throat.’ If the child you’re reading to is receptive to having a conversation there and then, great! If not, you’ve still planted the seed and modelled for your child that just because other people may march around looking pretty brave doesn’t mean they don’t have shaky hands and swirly tummies too.

Another way of executing a similar approach is to wonder about what beloved characters feel in situations we’ve never seen them in. ‘I wonder what Sally the Sheep would think about catching the bus?’ can be a great question to start a conversation about anxiety, particularly if Sally the Sheep is cool as a cucumber throughout the books she stars in. The child is likely to guess that Sally the Sheep would be just fine catching the bus, which provides an excellent opportunity to remind them that nobody in the whole world isn’t scared of anything, and that we all have some things that make us very anxious indeed, even if we don’t choose to tell everybody. You can turn this into a bit of a game: ‘If Sally the Sheep is secretly a bit scared of the bus, what might Frankie the Fox be a bit nervous about?’

Encouraging your child to guess which anxieties lie behind the calm veneers of their heroes may help them have the confidence to own up to their own swirly-tummy situations.

Amy Wilson-Hughes
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Amy is a clinical psychologist who trained at Victoria University and now lives in Auckland with her wife and cat. She is passionate about supporting young people and their families to live their best lives. She is also passionate about Harry Potter and fried carbohydrates.