Books for Anxious Children

14 Jul

From Your Anxious Child: Emails to Parents by Edward Plimpton, PhD


Books For Anxious Children


There are many ways in which books might help anxious children, from engaging them in a different world — and thus taking them away from cultivating their anxious thoughts — to more directly educating them about the specific problem of dealing with anxiety. If “anxiety” were to write a book, the characters would be seeking safety at all times, avoiding anything that isn’t guaranteed to be safe, and consequently leading a very dull and predictable life. This point is neatly captured in the book Scaredy Squirrel, in which the squirrel is too afraid to leave his tree and therefore has a very boring life. Sometimes the best books have nothing to do with anxiety per se, but deal with an appealing character overcoming significant challenges in the service of an important goal, such as the Harry Potter series, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Other books deal directly with specific anxiety problems, such as Go Away Bad Dreams.


Recommending books for specific children can be complicated by the need to match the book with the child’s developmental level, and more individual factors that might suggest especially good choices. As children advance through elementary school, they might find books about animals or fairies with anxieties “too babyish,” whereas a few years earlier these might have provided just the right psychological distance to make the story attractive and useful.


Books that help children with fears should normalize those fears and suggest solutions. Since other children do not necessarily have the same fears, worrying can make a child feel inadequate and different. Thus, it is helpful for the story to have characters with a wide range of worries, to illustrate that worrying itself is not so very “different.” For younger children, the message is more digestible when delivered indirectly, in stories whose main characters are animals or magical creatures.


Anxiety itself is a bully, intimidating children with constant threats of disaster and implications that they can’t overcome it. As a result, children often need help to feel comfortable being more assertive with their anxiety and being less passive about suffering it. Books such as Go Away Big Green Monster give preschool children permission, as the title indicates, to tell their worries to get lost. In There Are Monsters Everywhere, an older child becomes more assertive by learning karate and knowing he has these skills to help him when he goes into a basement.


For some children, just knowing they can be more assertive in fighting anxiety works wonders. However, if the worries are especially stubborn and persistent, setting up a situation in which there is a winner and loser might simply make the child feel that he is trying to fight anxiety, but it isn’t working. In this case, the child may need specific tools to disarm anxiety. In There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, the boy discovers that the nightmare is just as afraid as he is, and he befriends it. Thus, interacting with the worry and turning it into something silly can be very helpful tools. Currently, my favorite book is You’ve Got Dragons, because it addresses some basic features of anxiety, is more general in its recommendations, and is therefore applicable to a greater range of situations.

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