Understanding complex emotions and life events is difficult for anyone, but especially for children. When they don’t have the proper tools to express their inner turmoil and process their surroundings, this can often lead to frustrating interactions with parents and caregivers. One tool to give your child is seeing big emotions and hard situations played out in a book.
Books are a great way to help children understand their feelings, learn about differences, and begin to understand the world around them. This can start as early as toddlerhood with picture books! An extra bonus to picture books is the visual representation of emotions, interactions, and experiences. These can be jumping off points for all kinds of conversations with your little ones. Not only that, but it removes your little one from having to be the one with the heavy feelings or thoughts. Instead, by focusing on the stories of the character, you can discuss these feelings and thoughts without your child feeling put on the spot.
With that in mind, here are eight suggestions for picture books that can help engage your little one in some of life’s biggest questions:
Joanna Rowland is a fantastic author whose books tackle real-life issues. Big Bear was Not the Same discusses posttraumatic stress disorder and the effects that trauma can have on individuals who experience it and those close to them. In addition to Big Bear was Not the Same, her other books focus on tough topics such as grief, friendship when times are tough, and hope.
Tom Percival is another picture book author that takes big feelings and makes them relatable to children. In Ruby Finds a Worry, Ruby experiences anxiety and thinks she is the only child with this issue. Eventually she realizes everyone gets Worries and the best way to deal with them is not to ignore them, but talk about them. Not only will the story interest your little readers, but the art depictions of the Worry are fun and engaging. Tom has many other books focusing on social emotional learning in his Big Bright Feelings series, including Perfectly Norman, Ravi’s Roar, and Meesha Makes Friends.
This was one of my favorite picture books of 2021 (and apparently one of my daughter’s also, since she made it read it 3 times on the drive home from the bookstore alone)! A young boy who loves pink and dresses and “things that aren’t for boys” struggles to be himself when he doesn’t fit in with his family and friends. Stuart’s beautiful illustrations and lyrical prose open the door for inclusivity, diversity, self love, and acceptance. This book gives children the permission to “be themselves, even when it’s uncomfortable.”
The princess has everything she ever needs to make her happy until one day a fog settles over her and she can’t seem to feel happy anymore. The Princess and the Fog provides a fun, relatable look at childhood depression. An included guide in the back matter helps parents dig deeper on the topic. With realistic explanations of depression symptoms, Jones does a beautiful job of helping open up a conversation and foster understanding.
Bodily autonomy and consent are tricky topics to discuss with kids, but important nonetheless. Don’t Hug Doug approaches bodily autonomy in a way kids can relate to– with the concept of hugs. Doug doesn’t like hugs, but his friends and family often insist on hugging him! This book encourages children to ask before touching someone and to voice their own desires about how they are touched. Instead of a hug, why not a high five?
Katzenberger creates a kid friendly approach to anxiety through her story about Giraffe and Zebra. When going about his usual routine Giraffe experiences something that makes him so worried and anxious he just wants to hide. Zebra’s empathy and friendship help him overcome his anxiety and get back to enjoying his day. Katzenberger includes excellent educational back matter that can help parents and teachers engage deeper with the topic of anxiety.
Each of us have experienced days where we felt like we were on the “struggle bus”. Nothing is going our way, we can’t seem to make things work out, and we have no idea how we’re going to get things done. In her book, Koon takes this to the next level by presenting children with images of an actual school bus as “the struggle bus”. Her lovely rhyme walks children through times of frustration, hardship, and ultimately perseverance.
This year especially has seen lots of heartbreaking and stressful things in the news. From war, to pandemic, to school shootings, children may have been exposed to or have seen their caregivers’ reactions to media coverage of difficult situations. Sarah Lynne Reul tackles this in “The Breaking News” and helps show children and adults alike that while they may not be able to do BIG things to combat these issues, even small things can make a big difference.
Each of these books are excellent ways to not only dig deeper into big topics with your children, but to encourage their love of reading and their imagination.
For more resources on handling tough topics with kids, or to look into therapeutic interventions for yourself, your child, or family email [email protected].
A personal note from the author: As I was writing this piece in the aftermath of the school shooting in Uvalde, TX, the gravity of the situation at hand sat heavy on my soul. The weight of the tragedies that inspired this piece is not lost on me. Over 336,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 (source). In an average year, over 10,300 hate crimes in the US involve a firearm – more than 28 each day (source). For decades, gun violence has reached every pocket, nook, and cranny of our country, and as a result millions of lives have been irrevocably changed.
I feel called to name this as a preface to this blog: There is no amount of journaling, self-care, compassion, protesting, meditating, senator calling, donating, or volunteering that can take away or fix the deep wells of grief and despair felt by the survivors of those who have lost their lives to gun violence.
I stand by the information collected and presented in this piece. However, I am fully aware that this is not nearly encompassing enough to soothe the collective grief we are all experiencing, nor will it ever touch the amount of support needed by the families and loved ones who have lost someone to gun violence. This blog is meant to be a consideration and a supplement for those who are struggling to bear witness to the pain we are subjected to on an almost daily basis as Americans living among two simultaneous crises in this country – the gun violence crisis, and the mental health crisis. They both demand our urgent attention.
I plead with you to seek resources, gather support, and educate yourself on the subjects at hand. I plead with you to connect with your neighbors, contact your senators, and demand something be done to change the course of gun violence and mental health care in this country. Most of all, I deeply plead with you to take care of yourselves, so we can finally begin to take better care of each other. Thank you for your consideration – Sara
Self-Care in the Aftermath of Tragedy
“Every one of us needs to show how much we care for one another and, in the process, care for ourselves.”
The last several years, as a nation, we have seen unspeakable tragedy unfold. The near constant continuation of mass shootings is wreaking havoc across our society. With the rise and spread of social media, we now have a front row seat to these tragedies in a way we never have before. These events permeate our newsfeeds, our conversations, our brains, and most importantly our hearts. Feelings of hopelessness, exhaustion, and fear are running rampant between us and within us due to neurobiological responses to trauma. While tensions are at an all-time high, our need for compassion, connection, and support is greater than ever. Self-care is a valuable necessity in meeting these needs. Let’s explore how to lean into these self-care needs, and the importance of caring for ourselves so we can care for each other.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
Dalai Lama XIV
The root of the word compassion comes from the Latin phrase compati, which means “suffer with”. Compassion is what drives us to see other people’s pain and deeply identify with it. Compassion holds evolutionary neurological purposes. Compassion developed as an emotion within the brain to help us to identify and bond with others, thus creating safety amongst groups of humans. As humans experience compassion, our heart rate slows, our breathing deepens, and oxytocin (the bonding/love neurotransmitter) is released. Often this is demonstrated as an outward, other-oriented experience – we give or show compassion to others who are suffering. But what would it be like to turn this inward? We are worthy of giving ourselves compassion. Our bodies and brains have gone through so much over the last few years, and yet we are often expected to maintain the same level of productivity, health, and well-being as years prior. If we practice the gift of self-compassion, we can allow for the same neurobiological response to heal and soothe ourselves in the same way it does for others.
Practice quietly speaking to yourself as you would a friend or a child – I know this is so painful for you. It is difficult to understand and comprehend. People are suffering and it is hard to watch. It is ok to be sad, angry, and fearful. You are allowed to cry, self, it is okay. You are struggling in the midst of this, and you have every right to be. Providing yourself with the permission and allowance to comfort and soothe yourself is self-care. When we develop more compassion for ourselves, we also deepen the compassion we can have for others. Self-compassion and compassion for others are woven like a braid to form the fabric of empathy.
“Get yourself grounded, and you can navigate even the stormiest roads in peace.”
As the shooting in Uvalde, Texas unfolded on May 24th, 2022, we all watched from near and far in horror. Social media has created a nearly instantaneous avenue of communication and consumption of information. Neurobiologically, our brains are simply not evolved enough to withstand this level of information. As we watch the chaos unfold through Facebook live feeds, or hear the screams of the families through TikTok, we are giving our brains a hefty dose of secondary trauma. Although logically we know we are absorbing this information second hand through a screen, our brains don’t actually know that this is a second-hand experience. Our brains are wired to react and respond to threat and danger; thus, our trauma response begins through what is commonly known as fight/flight/freeze/fawn. As we watch these videos, our brains release cortisol and adrenaline, preparing our bodies for the danger at hand. As a result, this translates to overwhelming feelings of anxiety/restlessness (fight/fight) or depressive/hopelessness (freeze/fawn). The longer we engage with the secondary trauma, the longer this neurobiological response continues.
One of the best ways to relieve ourselves of this cycle is grounding ourselves. Grounding refers to an increase in radical acceptance, mindfulness, and re-connection to the present. There are many ways to practice grounding, and no way is right or wrong. Sensory based grounding techniques are always a go-to in my practice simply because they are easy and reliable. Try taking deep belly breaths and exploring the following – 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel/touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Reflect on the physical sensations that come up for you, as well as the feelings that arise during this exercise. I also love incorporating grounding during regular every day activities. Cooking meals, walking my dogs, playing with my crystals, taking a shower – these are all rich with sensory input that we can tune ourselves into to get back to our present body and mind.
Another great way to ground ourselves is through a creative outlet. Journaling is an amazing resource that we all have access to. Journaling helps us process our experience both internally and externally. In addition, think of all of the sensory based aspects of journaling. The smell of the paper, maybe the sound of the clicking as you type on your phone, what it looks like to see your words out in front of you. There are so many opportunities to check in with your body, mind, and soul in the midst of journaling. This also applies to other forms of creative outlets including painting, sculpting, drawing, and creating music. Anything that allows the charge of energy and emotion to move through us also provides us with an opportunity to check in with our own experience and utilize grounding to soothe ourselves. Things are treacherous in the outside world, but here in our body and mind we can create a peaceful, compassionate, and loving reprieve from what we are absorbing every day.
Grounding is important for self-care, but it is also important for a larger purpose in solving the challenges we are faced with today. The greater the activation of our trauma response, the less access we have to our prefrontal cortex. This is the part of our brain that we need for decision making, problem solving, consequential thinking, rationalization, and impulse control. These are ALL things we need to have access to in order to begin to solve the problem of mass shootings in our country. We cannot begin to solve this problem when we are all operating from a place without access to the parts of our brain needed most. Individually and collectively, grounding is becoming increasingly more of a necessity in today’s world to solve the complex problems we are faced with as a society.
“What I try to tell young people is that if you come together with a mission, and it’s grounded with love and a sense of community, you can make the impossible possible.”
Self-care is a crucial part of healing from tragedy. Although self-care can be relaxing and soothing, there are also forms of self-care that are more active and intentional. In light of large-scale events, some folks respond with a more intense drive to do something to prevent this from happening in the future. The lack of control and helplessness we feel bearing witness to these events pushes us to action. Finding a balance between grounding-based self-care and actionable steps is so crucial. One must occur alongside the other. We have to ensure we are in a healthy regulated mental space in addition to engaging with the resources available to help and create change.
One of the best ways to heal, feel connected, and process tragedy is in the company of your community. Community engagement is incredibly useful in creating a sense of togetherness, connection, and unity in the face of devastation. This large-scale form of co-regulation allows for us to think clearer, develop our compassion for others, and empowers us to seek the change we wish to see. When we all come together, strides can be made towards our end goal.
There are so many ways to get involved with the community to enact change to end gun violence and increase access to mental health care. Here are a few ideas:
Call Your Representatives – Contact your local and federal representatives to let them know you would like to see change to ensure the safety of you and your neighbors. The League of Women Voters has a great website that helps you find your elected officials and their contact information.
If you are unsure of what to say when you call or email, review this script: “Hello, my name is NAME. I’m a constituent from STATE, ZIP CODE. I don’t need a response. I am concerned about the rise of gun violence and lack of mental health care funding in our communities. I strongly encourage the senator to please vote for legislation that solves this situation. Thank you for your hard work!”
Review Volunteer Opportunities – There are so many ways to volunteer in crisis. Organize a blood drive with your colleagues, gather donations (see below) to support the families and survivors, or find organizations such as Moms Demand Action or Everytown that support policy change and provide opportunity for connection and action.
Donate – One of the best ways to assist is to provide monetary donations if you are able to. It is so important to do research on the legitimacy of donation sites to ensure your money is going to directly benefit families and survivors.
To donate to the survivors of the Uvalde, TX school shooting, please CLICK HERE
To donate to the survivors of the Buffalo, NY supermarket shooting, please CLICK HERE
Self-care comes in many forms, and it looks different for each of us. There is no right or wrong way to self-care. If you are feeling like self-care feels overwhelming, especially in a time of tragedy, that is totally normal and ok. I would like to encourage you to remember to take it one step at a time. One small decision to self-care will add up over time. Maybe that looks like putting your phone down for 10 minutes or going for a small walk to get the mail or taking 30 seconds to practice deep breathing. Any forward movement, no matter how small, is better than no forward movement. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others, and reach out to a trusted therapist if you need extra support on your journey.
Summer break is only a few weeks away! That means summer camps, traveling, and taking a much-needed break from the business of school is on the horizon for many students. In the therapy world there is a tendency for clients, and clients’ parents, to pause or stop therapy all together during this season for many valid reasons. Sometimes clients have hectic travel plans in which weekly or biweekly therapy won’t fit into their schedules; parents want their children to take a break from the usual hustle and bustle of after school activities which includes therapy; or the therapist and the client have collaboratively decided to stop therapy because session goals were accomplished. Whatever the reason, I find that it is beneficial to take a moment to discuss the importance of closing sessions when pausing or stopping therapy.
From a therapists’ perspective, I believe it is critical to have ongoing conversations with clients and their parents about goals in therapy because as the goals refined or altered so has the timeline of therapy. It also provides a loose structure for how long treatment can last and when clients and their parents can expect to pause or stop therapy. When both parties are aware and on board about when the last session takes place, it allows the client to process the end of therapy in a healthy way and the therapist is able to focus on how to structure the closing sessions (sessions leading up to the last day of therapy).
Sometimes, however, therapy can abruptly end, which unfortunately means that clients are not afforded the opportunity to have at least one closing session with their therapist. When I have further investigated reasons for this, one that shows up the most is that parents do not realize how important closing sessions are for their child’s therapeutic journey.
3 Important Reasons for Closing Sessions:
Closing sessions acknowledge the hard work that your child has accomplished in therapy. They are provided the safe space and dedicated time to reflect on their journey and be proud of themselves for doing the hard work to get them to where they are currently.
Therapy in and of itself is a highly emotional process and the time and effort it takes to create a therapeutic relationship with your child is a complex and rewarding feat. So saying goodbye is a way for your child and their therapist to jointly process the amount of trust, rapport, and honesty that has been gradually built up along the way.
As a therapist, it is important to model healthy goodbyes for our clients. When we have at least one closing session with our clients, we are able to show them that while a positive experience is ending for now, they are empowered to continue growing and evolving on their own. A common misconception about therapists is that we want to keep our clients in therapy forever. However that is not the case at all! Instead, what we truly desire is to equip our clients with the tools they need so that when the right time comes they can use the healthy coping mechanisms they learned in therapy out in the real world.
So if there is anything to take away from this blog, it is to talk to your child’s therapist about goals in session to not only get a sense of what your child is working on, but also to have a rough framework of how long therapy will last. These continued conversations can lead to a smoother transition for pausing or terminating therapy and your child can say goodbye to their therapist equipped with the confidence and self-assurance that they can continue growing on their own.