I wrestled with depression and anxiety from a very young age. As a kid, I didn’t have words for what seemed broken in me, didn’t know how to express my overwhelming feelings. My parents were frustrated; they would ask me what was wrong, and I didn’t know how to explain it. At thirteen, I was hospitalized for anorexia, which frequently co-occurs with anxiety and depression. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. So, those early years were hard. Though my parents wanted to help, they didn’t know how.
My greatest comfort during those challenging, sometimes-painful childhood and adolescent years was books. When I couldn’t bring myself to leave my bed or face people, I’d bury myself in a book, sometimes chewing through several in a day. Books were my solace, my safe place away from all my negative self-talk and inexplicable sadness. They understood me in a way other kids didn’t seem to. When I felt socially awkward at recess or in line, I read, concentrating on my book, and forgot what else was happening around me. It did sometimes get me teased, but, perhaps ironically, I found my friends in books.
When I was in eating disorder recovery as a young teen, my mom and I started reading aloud together for the first time in years. It brought us closer at a time when we felt very far apart. Those evenings stretching into late nights when we stayed up reading Wuthering Heights are my best memories of a tough time. I didn’t sleep well in those days and, up all night with racing thoughts, would turn to books to calm me.
Reading can help destress and even process trauma. It increases empathy and understanding for others. It can also provide an escape from whatever’s going on in your life. For children with difficult home lives or adverse childhood experiences, which might include anything from poverty to an incarcerated parent, reading can provide a positive outlet and coping mechanism. At the Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF), we work with incarcerated parents in New Hampshire and Vermont who get to select new books, write notes in them, and we send them to their children. During the pandemic, when prison visits have been prohibited, these families still have books to connect them. You’ll have to read this to me on the next phone call, many notes say, or, This was my favorite book as a kid. I hope you like it, too! It’s a special gift from a parent or family member they don’t often get to see.
One study from the National Literacy Trust found “Children who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged.” Three times more likely. And mental health issues in children are not going away; quite the opposite. Recent studies are showing higher incidents of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues in youth as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, we need to learn how to be supportive of all children, particularly following a year of disruption and isolation, and reading and telling stories can help. Books can make readers feel understood and less alone.
Use books and stories as a conversation-starter and a way to stay engaged with your child’s emotional state. Ask open-ended questions about the books they’re reading that can’t result in a “yes” or “no” response. Let them know you want to hear their ideas. Offer to read together, even if you think they might be “too old” (they’re not). It can create a bonding experience and a positive time in their otherwise-stressful day. Find books that address some of the issues they’re dealing with in their lives. Librarians are a great help with this. Having trouble fitting in? Check out Jerry Craft’s graphic novel, New Kid. Anxiety? Read John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. Experiencing or witnessing bullying? CLiF presenter Ann Braden’s new book, Flight of the Puffin, shows how to offer encouragement to others. Regardless of what they’re reading, it matters that they see reading as a safe space and a positive coping mechanism for whatever’s going on in their lives. Books will always be there, as they always were for me.
Writing can also be a productive way to process trauma and negative or overwhelming emotions. Even keeping a journal that no one else ever reads has been shown to help people of all ages cope and destress. Hand your child a notebook (it could something as simple as the 50-cent journals from Staple’s or as thoughtful as a beautiful journal that fits their personality). Encourage them to write down their thoughts every day. They may ask to share it with you; they may not. Either way is fine. The important thing is they have a place to put their emotions, frustrations, disappointments, and weird dreams. Bonus — they’ll hone those writing skills, which help both in school and professional settings.
Reading and writing not only help students succeed, but also help them thrive. At a time when mental health is even more critical than ever, giving your child a way to make sense of their feelings and get lost in a story can make a world of difference.
Erika Nichols-Frazer is a writer and the Communications Manager at the Children's Literacy Foundation (CLiF). CLiF inspires a love of reading and writing among low-income, at-risk, and rural kids (12 and under) in New Hampshire and Vermont. Learn more at www.clifonline.org.