Books and Big Feelings:
Using Books To Help Kids Explore Emotions

by Jennifer Clare

Photo credit: IONs/Shutterstock

My daughter has been having a lot of meltdowns lately, even for a child not quite out of the terrible twos. Yesterday, she spent the whole car ride home from daycare crying that I hadn’t brought her Cheerios. Side note: I never bring snacks for pick-up.

While dealing with earth-shattering tantrums can often be frustrating, I take comfort in knowing this is normal toddler behavior. And I’m versed in gentle parenting techniques enough to realize this wasn’t really about the cereal.

You see, she has a new little sister who often takes up more of my attention than she would like. She’s dealing with some big emotions around this transition and, at almost three years old, doesn’t yet have the skills to express or manage those feelings.

Feelings can be confusing, overwhelming, and tricky to talk about as a child. Even as an adult, I sometimes struggle with understanding how I’m feeling and why. Emotions are messy, and it’s my job as a parent to help my daughter work through them. Books can be excellent tools for helping do just that.

What does it mean to feel happy, sad, or mad? To feel scared, surprised, silly, or shy? Reading books rich in emotional vocabulary aids in emotional development, allowing kids to better connect with their thoughts and feelings. Picture books, especially, are perfect for this. Within their pages, you can point out clues such as facial expressions or behaviors that show what a character might be feeling. This helps encourage conversations with your child about why that character might feel the way they do and why those feelings are okay.

Likewise, books help children process and work through their emotional responses to change. Books were immensely helpful in introducing my daughter to the idea of becoming a big sister. I’ll turn to books again when we tackle other big changes, like potty training and starting school. I can use books to help teach her about more complex emotions like gratitude, forgiveness, and love. And books aren’t just there to help younger kids understand and express their emotions. They’ll still be there when she’s older to help her work through her emotions when dealing with bullies, peer pressure, friendshipfirst love, and more. To paraphrase Roald Dahl’s Matilda, books offer comfort to kids by showing them they are not alone.

Books are also magical in how they make us feel. Not just in the way we share the emotions of the characters in a story, but the very act of reading itself. That’s part of the reason they can make such exceptional gifts.

I still recall how safe I felt snuggled up against my dad as he read my sister and me a story before bed, and I see those same connections happening with my daughter when we read together. I see how she looks to me to react when something surprising or silly happens in the story. How she’ll interrupt to make some connection to her own life, giving me a window into her mind. How the tone of my voice guides her into understanding moments of sadness and scenes of joy. I love how her little body relaxes as it leans into mine, her little hands helping to turn the page. Reading is good for our relationship too.

Let books be a cozy place for kids to land when they need help understanding how they are feeling, need to work through a big change in their life, or just want to escape.

There’s truly nothing better.