How an Angry Monkey, a Worried Mouse, and Harry Potter Helped My Daughter Understand Her Emotions
When she recognized her feelings in her favorite book characters, my daughter learned the words to describe those overwhelming emotions, and gained the power to start controlling them.
At two and a half, my daughter’s anger was her most challenging symptom — even though we didn’t realize attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) caused her emotional outbursts at the time. One day I watched as she developed all the telltale signs of an impending meltdown. Her face reddened. Her little fists balled up. In moments, I was sure the screaming would start. But then, she held up her hand, as if she was holding a flower. She pursed her lips and blew, like she was blowing bubbles. She did this a few times until the tension released from her shoulders.
Mystified, I asked, “What did you just do?”
“I blew on my pinwheel like little monkey does,” she said.
For a few weeks, we had been reading Little Monkey Calms Down during our nightly routine. It’s a simple board book about a monkey who gets upset when he spills his ice cream and has a tantrum. He soothes himself in different ways by hugging himself, singing, or blowing on a pinwheel. I realized then that the books we read helped us with more than just calming down at bedtime.
Since I was a teenager, I have used books as an escape, a form of stress release. However, it wasn’t until becoming a librarian, and the mother of a child with ADHD, that I understood the concept of bibliotherapy for younger children. Dealing with ADHD, and other conditions, is confusing at the best of times. My daughter didn’t understand her symptoms any more than I did at first. I read nonfiction books about symptoms and treatments. Together, we read fictional stories about characters who struggled with fear and anger like she did.
When she turned three, getting her out of the car at daycare became our biggest challenge. It was a battle everyday. The owner had to come out and help pry her from under the back seats where she screamed and hid. At the time, I did not know that anxiety and ADHD often occurred together. I did not realize that children express anxious feelings as anger and aggression.
I borrowed Wemberly Worried from the library because the cute mouse clutching a stuffed animal on the cover reminded me of my daughter with her stuffed bunny. As we read about this little creature, who worried about everything, my daughter sat transfixed. Then, Wemberly had to go to school.
When we read the list of things Wemberly worried about, she said, “I think those things sometimes.” When we saw how, “Wemberly worried and worried and she worried all the way there,” my daughter sighed. “I worry like that.” She had never said the word worry before. We hadn’t used that term. It was always “I hate it.” “I don’t want to!” “No, no, no.”
The book gave her the new vocabulary to name her out-of-control feelings. What was this worry and how did it make her feel? What can we do to stop it, besides being angry? What can I do to make it better? What should I say instead of, “Stop worrying?” We read on, and, to my daughter’s relief, Wemberly’s school experience was a happy one. Some nights, when she started talking about school, I mentioned Wemberly — knowing that fear was creeping in. The book didn’t cure her nerves, but sometimes she could talk about it instead of having an angry outburst.
Through years of reading, she has learned more words to describe her feelings. We have talked about frustration, patience, and empathy for others. A Bad Case of Stripes introduced bullying and the importance of staying true to one’s self, something a lot of children with ADHD struggle with. The main character makes such an effort to blend in that she becomes a spectacle and is mocked all the time. That is, until she admits that she does like lima beans — which she was trying to hide because she knew others didn’t like them.
Now that my daughter is going into the first grade and more children her age know about her ADHD, she has a harder time socializing and making friends. Once or twice she has told me about being picked on or made fun of. So, we started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Although she’s too young to understand most of the series, she relates to Harry in many ways. He’s picked on by the Dursleys, bullied by Malfoy, and feels alone or different for most of his life. However, he gains self-confidence when he discovers the special gift he had all along. Harry gives my daughter hope that she can feel at home with her ADHD.
Reading offers her an escape, and gives us a path to address her challenging emotions. The stories help her learn about herself, and, in the process, help me learn about her.