It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations--something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own. ~Katherine Patterson
Using books to open up conversations about sensitive topics has been practiced for many years. Officially called bibliotherapy, it can actually be used in many contexts. Of course, some topics and some books are specifically geared to the work of counselors and therapists; however, you do not need to be an “expert” to use books to talk with children about a range of important topics. These topics can be anything from typical childhood issues such as starting Kindergarten, making friends, or going to the doctor to more sensitive topics such as coping with divorce, understanding death, dealing with a chronic illness, military deployment, or moving.
Most children will be presented with a challenging issue at some point during their childhood. As parents and caregivers, it can be hard to know how to handle these situations ourselves and even harder to know how to help our children understand them. Books are a great resource. They are familiar to children. They have a storyline to follow and characters children can understand and relate to. Books can ease the awkwardness and discomfort that adults often experience when talking about sensitive issues with children.
Below are five main benefits of using books about sensitive topics:
1. Provide information: Reading about a topic helps children gather accurate and reliable information in a safe and nonthreatening manner. It also helps create awareness, destroy myths, misconceptions, and untruths about the topic.
2. Develop feelings of mutuality: Reading about characters in stories who have similar problems or similar feelings helps children know they are not the only ones experiencing particular problems.
3. Develop empathy for others: Teasing and bullying are often based on ignorance or fear. Helping children learn about a diverse range of situations and problems faced by others can help them develop a higher level of sensitivity.
4. Provide options for action: Through reading, children can identify alternative solutions they can use in their own lives.
5. Offer hope and inspiration: As children and families read stories that show characters overcoming problems, it can offer encouragement that they too can conquer their problems.
So…it seems that using a book to talk with your child about sensitive topics is a good idea, but how do you do it? Where do you start?
Think of some topics that are relevant to your child and family. Remember while it is important to address situations currently causing your child stress or confusion, it is also important to talk with children about potential topics they are likely to experience in the future (e.g., teasing, puberty, death, feelings of self-esteem and identity). John Pardeck, bibliotherapy expert, offers the following recommendations: identify the problem, situation, behavior or skills to address, select appropriate literature, read the book with child, and follow with discussion. This aspect of bibliotherapy is crucial. Your approach needs to include reading and discussion. Below are some main points to emphasize during discussion (Adapted from Masters, Mori, & Mori, 1999):
- Talk about the characters and storyline. Ask the child to tell you details about the story line. Include questions about the characters’ feelings, values, and attitudes;
- Talk about how the main characters deal with the problem;
- Explore the similarities between the child’s problems and those facing the characters in the book;
- Discuss and evaluate the solutions offered in the story and ask the child to suggest ideas for additional solutions. The goal is for children to apply the solutions to their own lives.
We have put together several caregiving bags to get you started. Each bag addresses a topic that is common in children’s lives (e.g., loss of a pet, dealing with feelings, divorce). This is certainly not an exhaustive list and there are children’s books available for almost any topic you can think of. Of course, every topic and every book is not going to apply to all children and families. You know your child best. It is important to pre-read each book to decide if it meets your purpose. If you would like help finding books and resources specific to your situation, feel free to contact us for suggestions. Our hope is through the use of these bags and resources, you will engage in meaningful conversations that will strengthen the bond between you and your child(ren).
Amy Popillion, Ph.D., CFLE Jerri Heid, Youth Services Specialist
Jialin Shen, M.S. Randie Camp, Graduate Student (School of Education)firstname.lastname@example.org
[Below are direct links to the parenting packs available for check-out at the Ames Public Library]
Feelings Pack *Includes: 6 BOOKS: When Sopie Gets Angry: Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang - My Mouth is a Volcano by Julia Cook - Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Ed Emberley - Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman - Angry Dragon by Thierry Robberecht - Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst - the above letter and the following handouts:
Death of a Pet Pack *Includes:
Divorce Pack *Includes:
>>Parenting Packs in development: Parental Mental Illness Pack and Cancer Pack