Last reviewed 7 October 2020

Rebecca Fisk explores how books can help children to understand and talk about their emotions.

Introduction

Being able to talk about our emotions appropriately is an essential life skill. It impacts on mental health, whatever our age. It underpins all our relationships, both personal and professional.

Early years practitioners, working in partnership with parents, have a unique opportunity to support children to develop emotional wellbeing and lay the foundations for their future.

Learning to recognise emotions, name them and articulate how they make you feel is complex. It requires a good understanding of context and consequences. So how can we support children on this life-long journey of knowing and communicating emotions appropriately?

Books as a tool to understand and talk about emotions

Books can be used as a tool to help understand and talk about emotions.

There is a wide range of excellent books which support talking about emotions. For example, well- loved story books, such as ‘Dogger’ by Shirley Hughes where a boy loses a cuddly toy, experiences upset and is then reunited with it. There are also specialist resources, for example, a story to support children suffering from nightmares (accompanied by a cuddly toy) - Neon the Ninja by Dr Karen Treisman. This is a book which can be worked through with children, designed by a clinical specialist working with trauma.

Most children love books. Children often relate the content to their own lives in some way and can see themselves represented there. This might be through the narrative of the story, key facts that they connect with, the images in the pictures or the emotional tone of the book.

Libraries can usually supply children’s books with themes on request. For example, if a child is due to have a new sibling born, the library can source books about the arrival of babies. These books can help children to find a way of starting to understand and talk with adults about the changes they are experiencing when a sibling arrives. Working with parents and resources that support the conversation about emotions and change can support children to develop the emotional language needed. This can be applied to all life situations including difficult ones like illness or bereavement.

Naming emotions and feelings gives children more ability to recognise them and cope with them. It can help to make strong feelings less overwhelming and all-consuming. Sometimes making a book which is specific and personal to the child’s situation can help. If the child is sad and withdrawn, it may be that they can be supported to think about when they feel happiest, and what makes them feel this way. This can be represented in a personalised book. “I am happy when…I am sad when...” It is important to acknowledge how a child feels, valuing that emotion, and having a picture or some writing (on paper or e-book) which represents it, can help to externalise the emotion. Once an emotion is ‘outside’ it can be easier to see and talk about with others. Many parents and practitioners use books at times of difficulty in a child’s life, to process complicated issues. For example, the experience of parents separating and moving to new homes. Children can be part of the story. Start with how things used to be, then add what the changes are, and how things will be different. What things can they look forward to? What will be kept the same? For example, they will still see daddy at weekends and still have teddy in their bed at night. Try using examples of tangible events or objects that the children can relate to. Remember that children may need to revisit the book many times to help process the emotions around the situation.

The Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families has a dedicated section on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of young children on their website. It is a free online network for early years practitioners. It lists some common emotional and behavioural difficulties you may see presenting in young children with advice to support you and parents to help children. This may give you some ideas about how to recognise and work with children’s emotions.

Practical ideas to consider when making the books

Books that are interactive can be useful. For example, children may want to give colours to their emotions, and can take part in a treasure hunt for items and images of that colour so they can represent it in their book. They may want to make a textured book – what does the emotion feel like in texture? Does it feel cross and spiky or calm and smooth, for example? Listening carefully to how children describe an emotion can help formulate the book. An activity such as encouraging children to finish the sentence – when I am angry its like a…..dinosaur roaring, fire exploding, tree shaking….etc. This can be the starting point for the imagery they might want in their book.

Using different book mechanisms will engage children in book design. For example, lift-the-flap, pop-up, or zig-zag books can add character. Different sizes and materials can be used. A really big book could contain really big feelings! A tiny book which fits in a pocket can be carried around with reassuring feelings in it, as could a soft book, made of fabric. Multi-sensory books are engaging and can be easily personalised, with things to look at and touch, as well as having words that can be shared too. Your imagination as a practitioner can support the child to use theirs through the resources you provide. Many items we tend to recycle can be used – ensure safety is considered especially if there are small parts to the books. Your nearest Children’s Scrapstore may have some excellent resources for book making.

Involve parents and children in collecting items to make their books as much as possible. Parents may provide some photos, for example. Ensure the books can be accessed by the children. If they get damaged through use, they can have the opportunity to make a new and different one. The feelings may have changed and been better understood now.

Summary

Why not encourage children to make a series of feelings books? Perhaps try different design ideas for different types of feelings. The more the child is involved, the more likely they are to reuse the books many times. This serves to help them learn about, articulate and manage their feelings. Something to keep their feelings in, as it were, values not only the feelings but the child themselves. Making books to support children’s emotional well-being is a cheap, fun and creative way of helping them to learn about themselves and other people. Enjoy!