As you probably know, separation anxiety is totally normal and very common at different points throughout childhood. So much so that the time when one of my kids ran so quickly into the first day of school with no goodbye and barely a glance back at me, I worried about that all day, too!
It can be really challenging — for kids and parents alike– when your child is experiencing heightened anxiety around goodbyes or transitions to summer camp or school or any new environment. Luckily, books can really be a great tool for addressing and working through these feelings. As the host of two book-related podcasts of course I’m passionate about the power of books to affect our lives in all kinds of ways! Here are some of my favorite books for helping kids work through their separation anxiety.
For the toddler set:
WILL I HAVE A FRIEND?
by Miriam Cohen, illustrated by Lillian Hoban
This old-fashioned classic shows Jim and Pa headed to school. Jim asks if he’ll find a friend at school and his dad says he thinks so. (A little more certainty might have made Jim feel better but, whatever.) The school drop-off scene has Jim standing there, not saying anything, not wanting to be there. It isn’t always easy, but by the end of the day, Jim does make a friend. This is an honest story of kids overcoming adversity and being reminded that their parents love them unconditionally.
YOU GO AWAY
by Dorothy Corey, illustrated by Lisa Fox
This simply-illustrated book-of-few-words shows kids over and over realizing that loved ones always return. “You Go Away. You Come Back!” It helps children internalize that parents leave — for work, for trips, for errands — and then they return.
LITTLE ELLIOT, BIG CITY
by Mike Curato
This beautifully illustrated book about a polka-dotted elephant with a hankering for ice cream shows life from the point-of-view of someone very small. The world can feel big and scary, but everyone struggles, and helping others can be really helpful for overcoming your own issues. (There should be a BIG ELLIOT, BIG COUNTRY addendum for grown-ups who haven’t learned this lesson!) My little guy loves this and frequently requests it at bedtime.
THE KISSING HAND
by Audrey Penn, illustrated by Ruth E Harper & Nancy M. Leak
I ordered this book online when my big kids were 5 years old. I didn’t realize how enormous the book would be until it arrived; it was larger than the kids. We’ve had this monstrosity for about 7 years now and it has moved with us, going under beds and on top of bookshelves, for years. But the message stays with us all. A mom and her little raccoon, Chester, have to say goodbye to each other before school. The mom tells him, “Sometimes we all have to do things we don’t want to do… even if they seem strange and scary at first. But you will love school once you start.” They kiss each other’s hands and then each decide to take their “kissing hands” with them, even when they’re apart. This is a must-have. But maybe check the dimensions before ordering it.
by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson
These three owls siblings, Sarah, Percy, and Bill, got my kids through many a rough day. The owls sit together on a branch and wait for their mom to come back, getting more and more worried, until (spoiler alert): Mama comes back!
For the preschool set:
CLIFFORD GOES TO KINDERGARTEN
by Norman Bridwell
This is an oldie-but-goodie. When Emily Elizabeth gets a letter from her kindergarten teacher that each student can bring one thing from home to help make them feel comfortable, she decides to bring Clifford the big red dog. Other kids brought loveys, she brought Clifford. Emily’s first day ends up being fantastic and she can’t wait to go back the next day. Not everyone will have a giant red canine available to bring to school, but everyone’s got some special comfort item to hold onto!
WILMA JEAN THE WORRY MACHINE
by Julia Cook, illustrated by Anita Dufalla
Moral of this story? Everyone’s got ‘what ifs’ that worry them. The catchy rhymes and wacky pictures in this book help kids see that everyone carries his or her own anxieties. “What if” gets bold-printed repeatedly with a worried girl saying, “My tongue gets salty, my throat gets tight, I grit my teeth, ‘cause nothin’ feels right. My stomach feels like it’s tied up in a knot. My knees lock up, and my face feels hot. Worry, worry, worry.” By the end of the book, Wilma Jean has gotten many concrete tips to help her with her anxiety about school.
I LOST MY BEAR
by Jules Feiffer
This cartoon-y book with word bubbles tells the story of a girl who can’t find her bear at bedtime and freaks out about it. (My sequel will be I Lost My Phone.) You see, visually, how terrified and anxious she is without her trusted soothing item, and then you see her try to cope with that. Curious how it ends? You’ll have to read it to find out.
by Kevin Henkes
Kevin Henkes is a children’s book genius. Little mouse Owen is afraid to say goodbye to his blanket Fuzzy when he has to go to school without it. His parents try to ease his transition away from Fuzzy dipping it in vinegar and other unappealing solutions until finally they realize they can cut Fuzzy into small handkerchiefs. It sounds pretty traumatic (!), but it’s actually a happy ending and teaches kids that they can be okay with change.
by Kevin Henkes
A companion piece to OWEN, WEMBERLY WORRIES is a must for any little ones who spend too much time worrying. “Wemberly worried about everything. Big things. Little things. And things in between. Then it was time for school to start. And Wemberly worried even more.” Wembley’s parents tell her she worries too much, but of course that doesn’t help. Any child can be the little mouse in this book and finish reading it feeling more understood and with a few coping strategies under their belt.
THE GIRL WHO NEVER MADE MISTAKES
by Mark Pett & Gary Rubenstein, illustrated by Mark Pett
Beatrice Bottomwell is known around town as “the girl who never makes mistakes.” She makes perfect sandwiches, she feeds her hamster reliably, and she always says “good morning” and “thank you.” Her brother, Carl, makes a lot of mistakes. One day, Beatrice almost makes a bunch of mistakes, like dropping some eggs, and then, finally, makes a whopper of a mistake. She learns, though, that life doesn’t end when she makes mistakes and she overcomes her fear of failure. This book is absolutely fantastic. I want to take Beatrice out to lunch.
For School-Age Kids:
OUTSMARTING WORRY: AN OLDER KID’S GUIDE TO MANAGING ANXIETY
by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., illustrated by Kara McHale
This book, aimed at 9 to 13-year-olds, teaches kids (and their parents) coping strategies for overcoming their worries and fears. “Worry loves to debate,” is my favorite chapter in which the author suggests kids “talk back” to their worry, and acknowledges that sometimes, worry debates right back. (Ain’t that the truth.) Awesome graphic illustrations, too.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU WORRY TOO MUCH: A KID’S GUIDE TO MANAGING ANXIETY
by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., illustrated by Bonnie Matthews
Part workbook, part manual, this interactive helper uses cognitive behavioral techniques to help school-age kids and their parents. With exercises like “draw your own special memory,” or “draw the worry and then watch it drive away,” this book is great for young kids coping with any challenges that spark anxiety. As a parent, it’s nice to have something you can actually DO, and do together. It’s also fun to look back years later to see what the kids were so worried about back then. (You might wish you could turn the clock back!)
A SMART GIRL’S GUIDE: WORRY: HOW TO FEEL LESS STRESSED AND HAVE MORE FUN (an American Girl book)
by Judy Woodburn & Nancy Holyoke, illustrated by Brenna Vaughan
With quotes from real girls sprinkled throughout, this indispensable girl’s guide includes quizzes and talk about “worry words.” It aims to teach girls to take charge, be brave and cut stress from their life in lists of practical steps. This book reads like a popular ‘tween magazine and offers truly valuable insights.