Emotional and Behavioural themes in children’s stories

Emotional and Behavioural themes in children’s stories

In this third article in this series, we look at some common emotional and behavioural themes that can be adressed through carefully chosen children’s stories and books.

Children with emotional or behavioural difficulties can benefit from stories

Stories for children who have bad dreams

Moonlight is a great story book for children who have bad dreams

Jan Ormerod’s Moonlight is another picture book without words, but in every other way it is very different.  Here we see a family preparing for bed, a child eating with the family – notice, dad serves the food, and washes up – inevitably the implicit messages of the books we read are significant too.

There are many picture books like this which will allow you to share experiences of the day, to discuss and reinforce rules and patterns of behaviour – how to behave at table, the routine – food, bath, reading a book, then bed.  You can see that mother is cross about the mess on the bathroom floor!!  You can talk about this, and how mother must feel. 

Moonlight is for children who have bad dreams, and shows that other children have this experience too.  It reassures, helping the child to absorb and deal with its wakefulness, and would be a good choice to help them settle back down to sleep.

Dealing with sibling rivalry with stories

There are many books for children which deal with simple problems that face them and their parents on a daily basis – from pinching and punching at nursery school, to losing teeth, or making friends.

Sibling rivalry is common among children and there are many stories and books aimed at helping everyone understand and deal with it.

Shirley Hughes’ Annie Rose is My Little Sister is another based on real life – so that you can talk about the everyday, share feelings and ideas and build vocabulary with your child.  This book deals with sibling jealousy.   It directly raises some of the problems that older children face, when a new baby comes along, but the emphasis is on the positive, such as the fact that the older brother can go swimming with his dad.

It highlights the importance of family and the love between siblings, showing the young boy in a protective relationship with his little sister, suggesting in pictures the games they can play together, and ending in a romantic story book image that shows the older child in control. The dominance of the boy in the final illustration might seem sexist, but to me it is emphasising his importance and validating his existence at this difficult time.

Like all good story books it shows the child his place in the world, tells him he is secure, and loved; it is optimistic and positive in its portrayal of life.

 Stories for badly behaved children

In the Annie Rose book the illustrations are a little more complex than some stories, but this does reflect the likely age of the children who might find themselves in this situation.

Naughty children can really benefit from good stories and books that help them see what trouble they are causing.

Edwardo – The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World by John Burningham is very different, with lively cartoon style illustrations.  Is there a danger in this picture book of glorifying poor behaviour, of making it fun?  Possibly, though the structure of the story works against that: it begins with the readers sharing Edwardo’s experiences – kicking other children, being noisy and untidy.

In each case we see an angry adult, open-mouthed and pointing, so that we can talk about the ways adults respond to poor behaviour, begin to explore the reasons they get angry, and to think about how to recognise that in body language and words.  (This is important especially with autistic children, who do not easily recognise the emotional implications of body language and facial expressions.)

We can also allow the child to share experiences of being shouted at – the sense of guilt or fear that may accompany a telling off.  In the end though, the messages are positive –we all make mistakes, but we are loved, and good behaviour is its own reward.

Other articles in this series

If this article has been interesting, you may also like to check out one of our earlier videos on children’s temper tantrums.

3 thoughts on “Emotional and Behavioural themes in children’s stories”

  1. I think more parents should try to select stories with good morals and ethics themes. Of course that’s difficult define because each family, society or social group has its own take on good, values, morals, ethics, etc. For example, my sons (8 and 12 yrs old) and I just finished creating a video children’s book called Puddle Boy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNkfZ59DNWM It’s about a boy who overcomes adversity in the form of the football team’s bullies. One small part shows the bullies pushing kids into the mud puddles. Another has the main character learning self defense and using it to fend off an attack by the bully. While most of the parents in my circle woud consider these images appropriate, some have told me that they would prefer it if I did not show such confrontations. As a parent/reader, how do you resolve the need to show conflict to a child, without compromising the values of peace and nonviolence?

    1. HI Rafdaddy,

      Thanks for linking your video. What a great idea for creating and sharing stories with your sons. I bet they love it! Personally, I believe that it’s actually extremely important to show our children what the real world is like. This way, together we can learn about the right way to respond to such situations when they occur for real and we’re not on hand to help them decide what course of action to take. Also, in children (especially boys) who are growing up, they often experience very strong emotions and because they’re not entirely sure what to do with these emotions, they often “let them off” through a physical way such as pushing, hitting or otherwise being aggressive to other people (children and adults). Acknowledging their feelings and exploring what happens and how to cope with them through stories is a great way of preparing them and providing coping strategies as well as providing a conversation starting point so that you and your kids can use the book/story to discuss how they’re feeling and their experiences of their own and other children’s behaviour.

      I’d be very interested to know what you used to create your illustrated story and how long it took.


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