Children’s Books that Soothe and Seethe: Supporting Emotional Development

By Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

Toddlers and preschoolers are walking around with a great big new emotional life that doesn’t quite fit yet. When your child feels intense new emotions, you can hear her thump clumping around like she’s wearing your oversize shoes. She tries to stay steady. But more often than not, there’s no way to get from point A to point B without tripping.

Your child is learning the very basics of how to think and feel at the same time. She might feel happy, sad, angry, tired, excited, confused, afraid, or loving. Most likely, she doesn’t always know the perfect word to fit a particular feeling. She may not always know the best way to express an emotion. Sometimes the emotion is too big for words and other people get the wrong message.

Emotions are elusive tricksters. It often takes decades of practice to communicate effectively in a volatile situation. Children’s books, however, give voice to both the ordinary and the extreme of childhood emotions. They speak directly to children showing them that all those unsettling emotions are normal. A good children’s book finds a way to describe a difficult emotion with honest simplicity.

When you read a book to your child that fits his wild ‘n crazy moods, your child automatically feels understood. When he sees Sophie roar in When Sophie Gets Angry by Molly Bang, he knows exactly what that feels like. He might have felt out-of-control yesterday and now he can think about what didn’t go so well when all those emotions flew out of him.

When your child rereads a book that speaks to his heart, he decides how it fits his needs. He can take his time to study the pictures or relive a sequence of actions over and over. Repetition gives him power over things he’s trying to comprehend. A book like Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats gives him a chance to practice living with his new baby sister a thousand times before she ever arrives. He also has a private outlet for negative emotions every time he feels sympathy for Peter.

When characters in books show the extreme of emotions, your child can watch from a safe distance. He knows he’d never do that! He can vicariously experience the fears and the joys of raw emotions. Dinosaurs may teeter on the backs of their chairs in How Does a Dinosaur Eat His Food by Jane Yolan but your child will be just as happy imagining reckless mealtimes.

When monsters and pirates live in books, your child can experiment with being powerful. Children are small and dependent on the good will of others – that can be awfully scary. In some books your child is the roaring giant while in other books your child chases away annoying monsters. Either way, your child lives happily ever after.

When children’s books end with a hug or a kiss from a loving parent, your child imagines your unconditional love. Growing up involves endless little struggles that challenge your child. And sometimes on an ordinary day when a child is feeling “grim and grumpy”, he might be sure that no one loves him, as Debi Gliori describes in the book No Matter What. But one little book will show him he is wrong. And you won’t need to give him long-winded, grown-up pep talk for him to understand. He’ll just know.

Stock your home library with children’s books that acknowledge your child’s emotions. Find a cozy place. Get ready to laugh and cry, tremble and giggle. You are about to join your child in the wonderfully real world of children’s fiction.

Below are a few favorite children’s books. Parents can also visit www.pbs.org/parents/bookfinder on-line.

Anger

Llama, Llama, Mad at Mama, by Anna Dewdney

Sometimes I’m a Bombaloo by Rachel Vail

When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang

Go Away, Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley
The Worrywarts by Pamela Duncan Edward
Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco

Jealousy

Peter’s Chair by Jack Ezra Keats
Will There Be A Lap For Me? By Dorothy Corey 
When the New Baby Comes, I’m Moving Out by Martha Alexander

Frustration

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
Llama, Llama Red Pajamas by Anna Dewdney
My Friend Rabbit by Eric Rohmann

Lost or Abandoned

Are you My Mother? By P.D. Eastman
Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems
Owl Babies by Martin Waddell 
Where’s My Teddy? By Jez Alborough

Most importantly, unconditional love!

A Kiss for Little Bear by Else Holmelund
Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney
Homemade Love by Bell Hooks
Kiss Good Night by Amy Hest
On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier

Karen Deerwester is the owner of Family Time Coaching & Consulting, writing and lecturing on parenting and early childhood topics since 1984. Karen is also the Mommy & Me director at The Ruth and Edward Taubman Early Childhood Center at B�nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton. 

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