Anxiety in Picture Books –– How I Knew Scaredy Squirrel and I Were Soul-Mates
As a physician, I see patients with anxiety every day. Yes – every day, and most of the time I discuss stress, depression or a form of anxiety over 50% of my day in the office. The hardest part is when children are worried or anxious and parents feel helpless to make their “littles” feel better. A child usually does not come out and say – “I’m anxious mommy”, but may have social issues at school, recurrent headaches, tummy aches, diarrhea, withdraw from invitations with friends, or simply cry.
If a child has severe issues effecting sleep, appetite, or social interactions, it is important to involve your family physician and a counselor. But when symptoms are mild or while waiting to see a counselor – what is a parent/mom/teacher/grandma to do to help calm the nerves of a worried child?
Picture books can help!
Reading a book on a loved one’s lap is a source of comfort for a child and a “safe place” to relax and share feelings. Certain books can be used to help a child SEE him/herself on the page and help them to know that they are not alone in a sometimes scary world. I will give a couple examples of picture books that may help.
Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt is my go-to picture book for anxiety in children. In the opening pages, Scaredy Squirrel insists that the reader uses anti-bacterial hand soap before reading his book. We get an introduction to the obsessive-compulsive tendencies of Scaredy Squirrel early on as we see him make lists of his daily routine and refuse to leave the safety of his tree for fear of the outside world. An anxious child may empathize with Scaredy Squirrel and recognize some of their own desire to stay in their safe environments next to their mom or at home rather than risk the “unknown.”
On Thursday at 9:37a.m, a killer bee appears and Scaredy Squirrel reaches for his emergency kit and falls out of the tree only to discover he is a FLYING SQUIRREL!
The picture book has a flap open up to show him flying free, alive and carefree. Scaredy Squirrel changes his daily routine to include a “jump into the unknown” every day.
Children reading about Scaredy Squirrel can see that even though Scaredy is still afraid and makes lists every day, he is taking a chance and trying something new. It is important the Scaredy made these changes himself. His mom or teacher didn’t force him to leave the tree, and he did it by his own agency. This sets a good example for children as they see a character succeed in overcoming their anxiety.
Another picture book I enjoy about anxiety is You’ve Got Dragons by Kathryn Cave. This book is an entire metaphor for anxiety. The author shows that many people have dragons (anxiety) at no fault of their own, but they can be battled. A young boy confronts his dragons in many ways and feels every physical emotion of anxiety. This book allows children to acknowledge that anxiety is not their fault, can be common, but can also be conquered!
Anxiety is frustrating, and more common that many people realize. I often tell patients that if I could get all my patients in the same room for one day, then they could see how many people share the same worry, frustrations, tears, and sleepless nights. It may help with understanding and acceptance. I also suffer from anxiety and have for many years. Finding outlets in my family, friends, reading, writing, music, exercise, and modern medicine is vital and appreciated. I KNOW that picture books can provide another simple outlet for children to understand and see themselves on the page.
I would love to come talk to a school classroom or for an in-service to educators or counselors on this extensive topic about using children’s literature to assist in anxiety. Contact me if interested.
Some excellent resources for bibliotherapy booklists grouped by specific topics such as anxiety, death, anger, fear, etc:
Some specific books I recommend:
Cave, Kathryn, You’ve Got Dragons. Atlanta, Peachtree, 2003.
Carlson, Nancy, There’s a Big Beautiful World Out There. New York, Viking, 2002.
Dannenberg, Julie, First Day Jitters. New York, Scholastic, 2000.
Gackenbach, Dick, Harry and the Terrible Whatzit. New York, Seabury Press, 1977.
Jenkins, Emily, The Fun Book of Scary Stuff. New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015.
Koller, Jackie French, No Such Thing. New York, Scholastic, 1997.
Root, Phyllis, Oliver Finds His Way. Candlewick, 2002.