By Afoma Umesi
With the spike in anxiety and other mental health challenges among children, some parents are turning to therapy for help. Mental health professionals can play a vital role in supporting children through distressing life changes and challenges.
However, a major obstacle to seeking therapy (and/or medication, if necessary) is shame or worry about what peers may think if they find out. For some families or children, there is a perceived stigma attached to therapy. And of course, no parent ever wants their child to bear the burden of perceived stigma.
Here is where stories can help shine light and show the way. They can dispel fear of the unknown by portraying and normalizing the experience of therapy and treatment for kids.
In the following middle-grade books, therapy is presented as a perfectly healthy and normal tool for self-care -- as it should be.
(Note: Although most of the children in these titles undergo therapy for their anxiety, one or two get help via regular visits to school counseling.)
1. The List of Things That Will Not Change (Rebecca Stead)
In this big-hearted new book from Rebecca Stead, a warm and wise therapist named Miriam plays an important role in helping Bea acclimate, after her parents' divorce. Amid much change, Bea keeps a green notebook to remember the things that will stay the same. The first and most important: Mom and Dad will always love Bea, and each other.
When Dad tells Bea that he and his boyfriend, Jesse, are getting married, Bea is thrilled. But as the wedding day approaches, some complications help Bea learn that making a new family brings certain challenges, as well as questions, surprises, and ultimately, joy.
2. Five Things About Ava Andrews (Margaret Dilloway)
Young Ava is very anxious, more so because she has a heart condition she constantly worries about. But since her best friend Zelia moved away, there’s no one to speak up for her when she’s too anxious to converse in class or groups. She doesn’t even seem to have friends anymore, until she joins Zelia’s former improv group. The book includes scenes with Ava’s therapist, as well as coping tips the therapist shares, and how Ava applies them. This pick is full of moderate friend drama, laughs, grandparent bonding, and a touch of activism.
3. Some Kind of Happiness (Claire LeGrand)
Things Finley Hart doesn’t want to talk about:
• Her parents, who are having problems. (But they pretend like they’re not.)
• Being sent to her grandparents’ house for the summer.
• Never having met said grandparents.
• Her blue days—when life feels overwhelming, and it’s hard to keep her head up. (This happens a lot.)
Finley’s only retreat is the Everwood, a forest kingdom that exists in the pages of her notebook. Until she discovers the endless woods behind her grandparents’ house and realizes the Everwood is real--and holds more mysteries than she'd ever imagined, including a family of pirates that she isn’t allowed to talk to, trees covered in ash, and a strange old wizard living in a house made of bones.
As a Goodreads reader wrote: “My favourite thing about this book: that the author specified how much of Finley's healing process came from talking to a professional. I wish everybody who was struggling with any kind of mental illness would have the possibility/will to seek professional help.”
4. Kat Greene Comes Clean (Melissa Roske)
Kat lives in New York City with her mom. Her parents divorced several years ago and her dad has now remarried. Things are going okay until her mom loses her job and starts cleaning a bit too often. She cleans and washes her hands until they’re red and chapped, and at the store, she won’t add anything to their cart without disinfecting. Kat is also having friend drama at school, and doesn’t get the role she wants in the class play. But she’s more worried about her mother, and speaks to the school counselor for advice. This is a realistic portrayal of the way parental anxiety can affect children at school — and what caring teachers can do to step in and help.
5. Give and Take (Elly Swartz)
Maggie’s grandmother has died from Alzheimer’s-related complications. On top of that, her family is fostering an infant until the baby’s adopted parents pick her up. Maggie tries hard to avoid getting attached to the baby. Despite having a warm, supportive family, Maggie’s anxiety response to the stressful events in her life moves her to start hoarding everything from gum wrappers to the baby’s binky. When her parents discover this habit, they get Maggie to see a therapist, who helps her manage her fears and develop better coping mechanisms.
6. Guts (Raina Telgemeier)
Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel is based on her life experience getting diagnosed with anxiety as a tween. Raina has a morbid fear of vomit which exacerbates her anxiety about getting sick and spirals into even more anxiety. Raina’s parents take her to see a therapist who shows her coping strategies and helps her learn to manage her stress and anxiety. Besides her anxiety, Raina learns to try new foods, and also, maybe, to give other kids the benefit of the doubt. This pick is perfect for graphic novel lovers who may be reluctant to read books without pictures.
7. Good Enough (Jen Petro-Roy)
When she is unable to beat anorexia on her own, Riley’s parents place her in a live-in care facility. The facility enforces a strict no-exercise policy, regulated diets, and regular counselling to help the girls get back on the feet. This book is written in diary format as Riley learns that recovery is not linear, but she must beat her disorder to get her normal life back. Written by #ownvoices author Jen Petro-Roy, this upper middle-grade title is an exceptional look at the damage eating disorders can do. But also, it is an inspiring story of the power to regain control over mental health disorders.
8. Focused (Alyson Gerber)
Clea can't control her thoughts. She knows she has to do her homework . . . but she gets distracted. She knows she can't just say whatever thought comes into her head . . . but sometimes she can't help herself...When Clea fails one too many tests, her parents take her to a psychologist to be tested, and she finds out that she has ADHD. She starts meds.
While Clea doesn’t participate in ongoing therapy in this story, she does go to a psychologist for her diagnosis and treatment, which sets her on the right path. It’s just another take on how good behavioral/mental-health intervention can help.
9. My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee
When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning's older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with a mental illness, the family's world is turned upside down. Mom and Dad want Zinny, her sixteen-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her eight-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel's condition "private"--and to Zinny that sounds the same as "secret." Which means she can't talk about it... But help comes in many forms. Zinny's big brother gets therapy and care at a residential treatment center. Zinny's sister and mom go into talk therapy. Zinny sees the school psychologist but isn't ready to communicate. Eventually she gets support from her school's guidance counselor and his weekly guidance/support group, the Lunch Club. She also gets a different kind of support by an attentive and cool science teacher.
Whether you’re looking for therapy-positive titles for anxiety, OCD, or an eating disorder, one of the titles on this list just might help. Do you know of other examples of books that feature a positive therapist relationship? Tell us in the comments!
Afoma Umesi is a freelance writer and editor with a voracious appetite for children's books. She's passionate about literacy and freelancing and shares book lists, book reviews, and freelancing resources at afomaumesi.com. You can also connect with Afoma on Twitter.