When you have an anxious, impulsive, or explosive child, helping her cope can be difficult. I’m excited to welcome Brittany from Good Books for Catholic Kids, an expert on using picture books to teach emotional regulation and social skills.
This post contains affiliate links. Please see my disclosure policy for details.
My first child never seemed to stop moving.
People would joke that he was just a typical boy, but I knew his frenetic movement was more than that. His little body seemed to be in a constant state of fight or flight from the moment he started walking at nine months old. His days consisted of running from noises or movement, kicking everything in sight, climbing furniture, appliances, and people, and resisting all touch -violently.
He couldn’t even calm his poor little body enough to sit down and eat most days, let alone nap or rest long enough to not be in a constant state of crankiness. There was only one thing that helped him be still: storybooks.
Super Senses; Super Books
There’s something magical about the peace that comes over all my SPD children when I pick up a book and start reading. Our house goes from chaos to calm in about three seconds flat. They aren’t very picky about the story; almost any picture book captivates their attention. For kids who almost never settle down otherwise, their attention span is amazingly long when it comes to books. Their retention is amazing too, especially my oldest. One of his quirks is a freaky recall of books I read him. There was a period of about half a year when he was two and three where three-quarters of his talking was direct quotations from books I had read him.
For lots of differently wired kids, either their auditory or visual ability is exceptionally powerful and sensitive.
Many children on the spectrum actually think in pictures. Others like my son retain unusual amounts of what they hear. For all these exceptional kids, reading picture books is a powerful tool to pass on the lessons we want them to learn.
If I try to give my son a careful explanation of how to cope with feeling angry or anxious, what little eye contact he has disappears, he starts kicking the couch, and I know I’m not getting through. But if I take out a picture book about the same topic, he listens intently and internalizes the lesson.
In the Footsteps of Jesus, the Storyteller
Every time the apostles had trouble understanding a concept, Jesus started telling them a parable. The Gospels are full of stories about how to reach heaven, and how to treat other people. Getting along with others is one thing many differently wired children struggle with, whether in handling emotions in public, learning to respect other’s personal space or the multitude of other ways sensory issues manifest.
Books can be so helpful for teaching emotional regulation and social skills.
Here is how I approach using books for this purpose.
- Identify the specific problem I want the story to address. For example, self-recognition of feelings, or fear of the dark, tantrums, or impulse control.
- Find books that address the specific problem. Therapists often have recommendations. Librarians can also be helpful. I have a list of picture books about emotions here.
- Read the books several times, letting the story impart the lesson. Then when the specific problem occurs again, remind your child of the story.
Which books are our faves?
Picture Books that Teach Emotional Regulation and Social Skills
Tantrums and Meltdowns
Two of my children often have violent tantrums. By often, I mean several 30-60 minute tantrums a day, each. Because he has extreme touch aversion as part of his sensory processing disorder profile, my son particularly has trouble letting anyone come close enough to help him when he is mid-tantrum.
The book Jilly’s Terrible Temper Tantrums and How She Outgrew Them by Martha Pieper describes a cute little kangaroo who has loud, violent tantrums whenever she doesn’t get her way.
My children instantly identified with her strong emotions and explosive outbursts. In the story, Jilly learns to allow her parents to help her calm down. This book has really helped my two tantrum-prone children to learn to accept help in dealing with their big emotions.
My middle child struggles with anxiety that is triggered by a wide variety of situations. One of her triggers used to be a darkened room. To help her, I bought the book Can God See Me in the Dark? by Neal Lozano, a charming little story that addresses fear of the dark. Written by a Catholic author and illustrated by the talented Ben Hatke, this book draws on the life of Jesus to show children that God is still watching over them at night. Thanks to this book, my daughter now goes to sleep peacefully most of the time.
My oldest child struggles with impulse control and seeing the consequence of his actions. The book What Should Danny Do? by Adir and Ganit Levy is a wonderful introduction to the concept of free will. This book uses a superhero theme to explain free will as “the power to choose” and an interactive flip-to-the-page style to involve the child is making choices for Danny that change the outcome of the story.
Another favorite series in our house is The Way I Feel books by Cornelia Maude Spelman. This series teaches children how to recognize and cope with a variety of emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, and empathy. The book When I Feel Angry was instrumental in helping my son finally recognize and name the anger he felt so often because of his overactive amygdala.
There are so many great picture books to help our children deal with situations from strong emotions to social skills to accepting a new sibling.
You can find more of our family favorites in this post on good picture books about emotions for Catholic little kids.
Brittany is a third generation book lover. When she’s not busy homeschooling, chasing a toddler, reading to her kids, or cooking from scratch, you can usually find her with my nose in a “good book.” Connect with Brittany on her blog and her Facebook page.