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Helping Children Cope with Fears: Using Children'sLiterature in Classroom Guidance. By: Nicholson, Janice I.; Pearson, Quinn M.. Professional School Counseling, Oct2003, Vol. 7 Issue 1, p15-19, 5p; (AN 11360367)

Many children are dealing with adult fears such as death, crime, and war at early ages. School counselors can help children cope with these fears using stories from children's literature. The role that children's literature can play in teaching these coping skills is discussed along with strategies for choosing books. Several books and recommended counseling activities are described for use in the primary grades. Recent events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war on terrorism have heightened our fears and sense of vulnerability to future attacks. Although typically considered adult concerns, the constant media coverage in the immediate aftermath of these events and the continuing emphasis on terrorism have heightened our children's fears about death. As a result, parents, teachers, and school counselors are faced with the task of identifying and implementing strategies that will enable children to cope with these fears. The purpose of this article is to discuss the role that children's literature can play in teaching these coping skills. Specifically, strategies for choosing books and for activities to accompany selected books will be presented.


It is well established that fears are a natural part of children's development and occur in a fairly predictable pattern. Normative data on children's fears suggest that the focus of their fears shifts as children grow older (e.g., Akande et al., 1999; Grosser, 1995; Smith, Davidson, White, & Poppen, 1990). Robinson and Rotter (1991) suggested that in infancy and early childhood fears initially reflect a fear of strangers and separation from parents and later focus on dark rooms, sudden changes in appearances, large animals, and mystical creatures. Although children continue to be afraid of large animals, in the early school years, these fears are gradually replaced by fears of dangerous people such as robbers, muggers, and kidnappers, and a subsequent fear of being alone (Erne & Schmidt, 1978; Robinson & Rotter).
While earlier studies indicate that real-life fears (i.e., fears of real world violence such as drive-by shootings, drugs, gangs, and nuclear war) do not begin to emerge until early adolescence, more recent evidence now suggests that these fears are occurring at earlier ages, in the elementary school years (Owen, 1998). In a study of Hispanic and Anglo children ages 7 to 9, Owen found that danger, physical injury, and death were the children's most frequently cited fears. Owen reported that regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity, fears of death and personal danger were preeminent at this age. Given these findings, Owen concluded that "With their high fear ratings of social violence . . . 7-, 8-, and 9-year-old children resemble older children from past research. Fears of drive-by shootings, nuclear weapons, and street drugs have supplanted fears of bad dreams, animals, and monsters in this 1990s cohort."
Widespread media coverage of violent events and constant social and cultural changes appear to have a profound effect on what children fear (Hostetler, 1991; Robinson, Robinson, & Whetsell, 1988; Tarifa & Kloep, 1996). In a review of recent studies, Tarifa and Kloep concluded that children respond strongly to world events. For example, such events as the nuclear arms race (Duncan, Kraus, & Parks, 1986; Kanet, 1983) and the war in the Persian Gulf (Hostetler; Knoll, 1991) led to an increase in children's fears as well as their anxieties about the inability to make the world a safer place. Looking at children's fears in different countries, it was found not only that children across societies have a common fear of war but also that fears are shaped by local events (Tarifa & Kloep). As the United States will likely continue to deal with the uncertainty of the war on terrorism, school counselors can anticipate that our children's fears are likely to be heightened during this national crisis. Among other effects of heightened fears, loss of sleep and diminished confidence can make children too tired and too insecure to focus on learning (Robinson & Rotter, 1991).
Unfortunately, adults tend to underestimate the degree to which children experience adult-like fears. Jones and Borgers (1988) found that children reported more fears than those predicted by parents, and the greatest disparities occurred with fears of accidents and being hurt, nuclear war, and death of a loved one. Yet, denying children's fears often increases them (Duncan et al., 1986; Protinsky, 1985). Moreover, collective threats such as war or acts of terror can "give rise to doubts as to whether they [children] can be successful in other areas of their lives and meet the challenges of daily threats" (Robinson & Rotter, 1991). This new threat should prompt counselors to explore ways that will enable our children to cope with the pervasive fears that terrorism has created.


According to Smith et al. (1990), knowledge of four basic variables associated with fear (i.e., latency, intensity, duration, and situational context) leads to a better understanding of how children cope with fear. When faced with fear, children will engage in overt or covert strategies based on a combination of internal and external resources (Smith et al.). Overt strategies include such observable behaviors as clinging, withdrawal, distraction, and direct confrontation. Covert strategies refer to cognitive attempts to reappraise the fear-provoking situation, problem solve, or boost confidence (Robinson & Rotter, 1991; Smith et al.). The choice of these strategies depends on children's perceptions of their internal and external resources. External resources include potential allies such as family members, peers, teachers, other adults, or even inanimate objects (e.g., stuffed animals, security blankets). Internal resources refer to a positive self-concept, a feeling of independence, the ability to problem solve, and a sense of control over some aspect of the fear (Smith et al.).


Bibliotherapy can be a powerful tool for helping children identify internal and external resources as well as develop subsequent coping strategies. Pardeck and Pardeck (1984) described one process through which children may benefit from bibliotherapy. This process includes first identifying with the main character's needs, wishes, and frustrations; followed by experiencing an emotional release through abreaction and catharsis; and finally gaining insight into solutions to their own problems by identifying the characters' coping strategies (Pardeck, 1990; Pardeck & Pardeck). Levine (1999) further illustrated the power of bibliotherapy, arguing that stories tap into children's natural creativity and ability to suspend reality. Children's creative cognition allows two levels of consciousness to operate simultaneously: "At the conscious level the client [child] is focused on the content of the actual narrative, while at the unconscious level a search is performed for [the child's] experiences which parallel the narrative" (Levine, p. 145). Thus, strongly identifying with story characters enables children to apply what they have learned from the characters to their own real-life situations (Carlson & Arthur, 1999).
Although further research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of using literature therapeutically (McArdle & Byrt, 2001), recent studies show promising results. In two outcome studies on bibliotherapy (i.e., Hayes & Amer, 1999; Shechtman, 2000), fictional works were used successfully to improve emotional and behavioral coping in children and adolescents. The potential power of using storybooks to facilitate emotional expression and teach coping skills includes the area of fear reduction. Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, the limited research in this area (e.g., Trousdale, 1989) shows that bibliotherapy has been used successfully to reduce children's fears. Trousdale asserted that children in her study focused more on the successful resolution of the fearful situation rather than dwelling on the scary aspects of the story. Rather than frightening children, scary books capture their attention and seem to provide vicarious opportunities for exploring and mastering their fears (Richards, Thatcher, Shreeves, Timmons, & Barker, 1999). Thus, scary stories that provide solutions to the threat instill confidence rather than fear.


Given the importance of successful resolutions to fear reduction, stories must be carefully chosen. Gillespie and Connor (as cited in Pardeck & Markward, 1995) developed general guidelines for selecting books for therapeutic use with younger children. They suggested choosing books with appealing illustrations, interesting story content, useful information, broad humor, surprise elements, and appealing, recurring refrains. Stories that contain animal characters can likewise be particularly effective with younger children because they eliminate such factors as age, gender, and race, and allow for a diverse range of identification among children (Peller, 1962). Similarly, inanimate objects as story characters offer these advantages for younger children, while older children and adolescents prefer human characters similar to themselves (Pardeck & Markward).
According to Schrank (1982), other factors that should be considered when selecting books for children of any age are as follows: (a) problems or situations that are of interest or relevance to children; (b) characters developed to allow for sufficient identification; (c) story depth that enriches the meaning of life; (d) situations in the story that are appropriate for the developmental level of the children; (e) reading levels that are appropriate to the readers; (f) stories that are well written; (g) opportunities for readers to offer alternative solutions to situations or problems; and (h) stories that are free of sexist language and racial bias.
Based on suggestions by others (i.e., Carlson & Arthur, 1999; Richards et al., 1999; Trousdale, 1989), the authors of this article conclude that additional factors need to be considered when using bibliotherapy for fear reduction. First, story content and characters need to portray fears with which children can identify. Second, fears must be successfully resolved or addressed in the story. Finally, covert or overt coping skills as well as internal or external resources must be readily identifiable so that children can relate these strategies to their own fears.


Pardeck and Markward (1995) offered a number of creative activities that can be used with bibliotherapy to assist children in overcoming their fears. These activities include art activities, dramatization, pantomiming, puppetry, role playing, and written responses. Pardeck (1990) further suggested reading aloud, constructing collages, and composing a letter to a book character as useful activities to help engage the child on a more personal level with the story.
In addition to creative activities, questions can help children identify with the characters, recognize characters' coping strategies, and relate the story to their own experiences. Disque and Langenbrunner (1996) provided a list of questions to help children name the character they identify as most appealing:
  • What are some of the things that you like most about this book?
  • Who would like to draw a picture of a favorite character?
  • Who can say something or make a noise like a character?
  • If you could be like one of the characters, who would it be?
  • What do you think you'll remember about this story? (p. 4)

In a discussion of scary stories, Richards et al. (1999,Table 2) suggested several prompts for identifying characters' choices and strategies: "How do the characters grow and change? How do they deal with their problems? What do the characters learn? What do the characters' actions teach the reader? What would the reader do in a character's place?" Once the characters and their actions have been discussed, questions can be used to help children make connections between their own feelings, thoughts, and actions and those of the book's characters. Disque and Langenbrunner (1996) listed the following questions:

  • Do you ever feel (or wish) you were like that?
  • If you were that character, what would you do (think, wish for)?
  • What do you do when you feel that way?
  • Do you wish you could act that way when you are sad?
  • Have you ever been that sad? Tell me about a time you were that sad. (pp. 4-5)


Based on the recommendations of others (e.g., Disque & Langenbrunner, 1996; Richards et al., 1999) and on book lists, the authors reviewed and selected several picture books for classroom guidance activities. While reading levels vary, each of these books is suitable for the primary grades of kindergarten through third grade. These activities can be modified for individual and small-group counseling to meet selected students' needs. For each book, the themes and coping strategies are briefly described, and guidance activities are presented in more detail.

The Runaway Bunny

This classic picture book, The Runaway Bunny (Brown, 1942), offers the theme that an adult will take care of you and keep you safe no matter how badly you may want to run away from the adult or how bad your behavior may seem to be.
After reading this book aloud, the counselor can structure a discussion by having the children talk about the different ways the runaway bunny chose to get away from the mother bunny and the ways the mother bunny indicated that she would rescue the runaway bunny. The counselor could then assist the children in exploring reasons why the little bunny might want to get away from the mother bunny. This discussion could lead to further exploration on why the children might want to get away from their mothers (or caretakers) and how their mothers might rescue them. The counselor could list these ideas on the board and have the children identify how they might feel in each situation. This exercise could lead to further discussion concerning ways that children and their parents might resolve their conflicts to avoid the possibility of the child becoming like the runaway bunny, who keeps having to come up with new ways to run away from the mother bunny.

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, A Story of Life for All Ages

This story (Buscaglia, 1982) parallels the changes that a leaf undergoes during the four seasons and the passages of time that individuals undergo as they pass from life to death. The book underscores the ideas that death is nothing to be afraid of and that with the support of a friend, one can see that in many instances life is harder to face than death.
The counselor can introduce this book by having the children draw a life cycle of a leaf and denote the changes that occur during the four seasons. Using a Venn Diagram (a drawing with two circles in which part of the circles overlap), the counselor can elicit a discussion about the likenesses and differences of the life cycle of the leaf and the life cycle of a person by writing the differences in the parts of each circle that do not overlap and the similarities in the overlapping area. To assist children in gaining a better perspective on how to deal with a permanent loss, the counselor could have them identify persons in their lives who could provide support for them just as Daniel did for Freddie. The children could list the characteristics that Daniel had and how these characteristics had a positive effect on Freddie's understanding of life and death.

The Ghost-Eye Tree

This story by Martin and Archambault (1985) depicts a young boy's fear of the dark. Its underlying theme is that some things we fear do not hurt us, even though they are scary. Since this story was developed as a reader's theatre piece, the counselor should read the story aloud to the children, making sure to emphasize the details in the illustrations and to accentuate the italicized words. After reading the story aloud, the counselor should then guide them in an activity in which the children develop a list of character traits to describe the sister and the young boy. The children could also be encouraged to list the elements of the story that elicited fear in the young boy. Similarly, they could list things or events that cause them to be afraid. Using a cause and effect chart, the children could list the things or events that are fearful to them on the left side of the paper, draw arrows from each fear, and list the corresponding effect of these fears on their behavior. Another phase of this discussion could focus on actions that the children could take in order to help them overcome the fear.

Thunder Cake

Depicting the story of a young girl who is afraid of thunder and how her grandmother helps her overcome her fear, Thunder Cake (Polacco, 1990) has as its premise that thoughts can be diverted from the fear object by getting involved in other activities when the fear object is present. Although the counselor could read this story at any time, it might serve as a useful distraction when children at school are actually experiencing a thunderstorm. After reading the story aloud, the counselor could lead the children in a discussion of why the book is entitled Thunder Cake. Using a web, the counselor would have the children write the book's title in the center of a circle. Words and phrases that describe the activities (i.e., counting when you see the lightning and finding the recipe) the grandmother used to divert her granddaughter's thoughts away from the thunder are written on lines drawn out from the center.
Afterwards, each of the children could list one of their fears and identify several activities that would distract them from focusing on the fear object. Along with the distracting activity, they could identify a friend or adult who could provide comfort to them, just as the grandmother did in the story. In order to help the children remember the events of the story, the counselor could provide the ingredients for the thunder cake and let the children participate in mixing the ingredients and baking the cake. The event could culminate with the children eating the cake.

Thornton the Worrier

Sharmat (1978) created the story of a young rabbit that always had a multitude of worries that made his life miserable, until he met an old man who did not worry about anything. After hearing the story read aloud, the children could compare the character traits of Thornton with those of the old man. The children could then write a letter to Thornton suggesting some things that he might do in order to overcome his many worries.
The counselor could then assist the children in listing some aspects of school life that might cause them to worry, and through discussion, the group could come up with a list of practical actions that could prevent the need to worry. For example, if they worried about making a bad grade on a test, practical actions might include studying the material and doing the homework. Similar activities could be used with the book Not a Worry in the World (Williams, 1990), which also focuses on how a young boy learned to cope with his many worries.


Children's books are rich with characters that confront many of the same dilemmas faced by the children in our society. Good stories allow children to see themselves in the main characters and to be moved emotionally by the struggles and triumphs of the characters. When combined with creative activities designed to elicit personal connections between the listener and those characters, children's literature becomes a powerful tool for helping youngsters develop strategies for coping with their own struggles. As children are becoming increasingly fearful of personal attacks, war, and terrorism, helping them learn to cope with these fears is paramount.
The potential power of using storybooks to facilitate emotional expression and teach coping skills includes the area of fear reduction.
Another phase of this discussion could focus on actions that the children could take in order to help them overcome the fear.
Good stories allow children to see themselves in the main characters and to be moved emotionally by the struggles and triumphs of the characters.

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