Posted May 29, 2022
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The turmoil and upheaval of the last several years have brought a new awareness of the importance of mental health in children. Previously, physical and intellectual development were considered the cornerstones of children’s well-being. Many viewed children as somehow protected or immune from the stressors that are detrimental to mental health. Now, we realize that is far from the truth. Advances in brain research and studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences have changed our perceptions of children’s well-being. By some estimates, one in six children is experiencing a diagnoseable mental health condition. Many others are affected by short term stress and trauma that may have life-long consequences if not addressed.
So what can we do to nurture children’s mental and emotional health and give them the tools to cope with life’s stressors? The answer may surprise you. READ! A growing body of research shows that reading to and with your children on a regular basis has a significant and positive effect on their mental health.
There is a well-established link between children’s early language and literacy skills and school success. We know that children who are read to often have more extensive vocabularies and more developed cognitive skills than those who aren’t read to. Those same skills can be applied to mental and emotional health. Children who can name an emotion and express their feelings in words are better able to manage emotions. They don’t just feel “bad.” They may feel scared, nervous, sad, embarrassed, lonely, frustrated or angry. Naming a feeling is the first step in understanding it and dealing with it.
Sharing books with children does much more than help them label their emotions. Recent research reveals that young children who are read to on a regular basis and later enjoy reading on their own consistently score higher on mental health assessments than children who don’t have positive reading experiences. They have greater self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-regulation skills. Australian researches found that reading aloud with children who were experiencing neglect and maltreatment tripled their emotional resilience. Another study of children who were war refugees found that reading with the children changed their emotional perceptions in a positive way.
The simple act of reading a book with a child creates a bonding experience that includes physical closeness, undivided attention, relative calm, and sharing thoughts and feelings. That, in itself, has a powerful effect on children’s emotional and mental well-being.
There are many ways you can use books to nurture your children’s mental health
- Use books as discussion starters to talk with your child about what they are thinking and feeling. Books can be a gentle way to starts conversations about difficult or sensitive topics.
- Read books that help your children recognize and name feelings and show ways to cope with unpleasant emotions.
- Read books that serve as “windows” and “mirrors.” Books that portray children who are experiencing similar circumstances and emotions help children realize they aren’t outcasts or alone in what they are dealing with. Books that show children who may be struggling with other types of challenges help children develop empathy and compassion.
- Read books that focus on specific issues your child may be dealing with and suggest ways to cope.
- Keep reading to and with your child even after they are reading on their own. A survey of 9 – 11 year olds found 60% were no longer being read to at home but over 1/3 of those wanted read aloud time with their caregivers.
- If you are looking for books on specific topics to share with your children, ask your librarian for recommendations.
To read more about the link between reading and children’s mental health