Shared Reading Helps Us Help Children Through Hard Times
Children may forget what you said and what you did,
but children will never forget how you made them feel (adapted from Maya Angelou).
- This guide makes reference to the Buttons and the Butterfly book but there are many wonderful books that might be appropriate (see tips below on selecting a book for shared reading). See the tab for recommended books for grieving children on this website.
Shared reading can give children cherished memories
When children go through something difficult, it’s crucial that we remain connected to them. Even though talking about the hardship may not be easy, we can start by taking small and gentle steps to pave the way for a deeper conversation later. Reading together every day can provide a safe space for your child to feel supported, loved, and heard. And snuggling up with your child to read engaging children's books can be mutually beneficial, creating cherished memories that your child can pass on to their own children someday.
While reading a book together with a child, we are communicating many important things to them. Firstly, we are showing them that we care enough to spend quality time with them. We are also conveying that nothing is more important than the time we spend together. We are sharing a focus and going through the story together, which can be especially beneficial during tough times. If the child is hurting, we may be hurting too, so sharing a focus outside of the grief can take the pressure off both of us to talk about the hard thing until we are both ready.
Additionally, we are letting the child know that we are ready to listen to them, through both their words and their behaviors. If they feel that we hear their thoughts and opinions, even something as simple as the color of a flower (e.g., see p. 1 – are these flowers blue or purple?), they will gain confidence that we will hear them when they have something harder to say, such as that they miss a loved one. We also teach them about communication by taking turns and talking back and forth.
Talking about the hard thing is not be the goal
It's important to note that the goal of shared reading should not be to have a conversation about difficult topics, like grief. It's up to the child to initiate that conversation in their own time and at their own pace. Children's readiness to talk about difficult subjects varies, so be patient and supportive.
Books that address tough subjects, such as "Buttons and the Butterfly", may need to be read multiple times before the child is ready to talk about their feelings. Children benefit from repetition, so be prepared to read their favorite stories so often that you memorize them. ????
Tips for shared reading
Read. Read the page with the child slowly and meaningfully. Give the child time to absorb the words and to process them.
Listen. Pay attention to their verbal and nonverbal cues. Are they ready to turn the page or do they want you to turn the page? If unsure, ask them.
Say. Don’t do this the first time you read a book – first, go through the whole story. Don’t do this on every page. Say something that strikes you about the page if you feel the child wants to stay on the page.
Wait. Be comfortable with silence. If the child doesn’t say anything, verbally, or nonverbally, move on to the next page.
Ask. Ask a question that is appropriate for that child, emotionally, and developmentally. If they point and don’t say anything, that’s ok! Pointing is communicating in a very important way!
Examples of questions ranging from easy, emotionally and developmentally, to harder
See page one of the Buttons and the Butterfly story.
- Can you help me find a flower?
- Could you help me find a collar?
- What color would you use to describe these flowers? (kind of bluey purple, right? Maybe start a conversation about this)
- It just noticed something around the neck of Buttons. I wonder what that is. (wait) Do you happen to know what that's called?
- I sometimes enjoy being alone too (wait). How about you?
- I'm curious about what Buttons might be thinking right now. Any guesses on what's going on in her mind?
- I wonder what happens next. What do you think? (a great cliffhanger)
- I wonder why Buttons like to be alone. Any ideas?
- What’s happening here, do you think?
- Do you like being alone sometimes? Why (or why not)?
How to choosing a book for shared reading
It's never a good idea to force a child to read a particular book. Instead, choose books that are interesting to them at that moment - whether they have rich, detailed pictures or simple, uncomplicated ones. Sometimes, books that address difficult subjects may need to be read multiple times before a child is ready to talk about their feelings. Remember that repetition is beneficial for children, but it should never be forced upon them. You can offer your child a few book options and let them choose which one they would like to read. Their choice may provide insight into their current emotional state. Be prepared to read their favorite stories repeatedly until you have memorized them. This can be a great way to engage children in a book - by pausing before reading a word and having them "read" the next.
How to regulate the emotions of you and your child’s emotions
Talking about difficult topics can be emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting. It is important to remember that both you and your child need to take breaks and pace yourselves during the discussion. This process of learning how to handle hard topics is a lifelong journey, as emotions regarding difficult topics may emerge unexpectedly throughout your lives. Reading together can help both you and your child model what is called "emotion regulation." This means learning how much of the difficult subject we can handle at a particular moment and what to do if we feel overwhelmed. In reading, we can turn the page, discuss something else on the page, or put the book down and do something else. Similarly, in conversations, we can change the subject or politely excuse ourselves. It's okay to say, "Let's talk about something else for now." But don’t change the subject just because grief makes you uncomfortable.
Grieving is a natural and healing process
It is very important not to change the subject or leave the conversation just because the child is crying or visibly upset. Grieving is a natural and healing process even though it's difficult to see your child in pain. Your child needs to feel cared for, comforted (usually with touch), seen, and heard, especially during a time of grief. We all want those around us to show that they love us, especially when we are hurting. Your children are no different. When they are adults, they may remember how they felt cared for, comforted, and seen during these shared reading times. Learn to recognize the signs that your child has had enough and then turn the page, change what you're doing on that page, or put the book away – you could ask them. Try to make some change before they become overwhelmed. Remember, crying is not losing control when it comes to grief. Crying is a natural part of the healing process. Temper tantrums, on the other hand, are not.
Wishing you and your child many wonderful new memories over beautiful books,