Reading Tips for the Sensitive Child

Does your child have vivid dreams or is prone to nightmares? Are they easily bothered by strange, disturbing or frightening images in movies? Do they get scenes or scenarios stuck in their head? If so, you probably have a sensitive child who would benefit from learning tricks and tools to help them navigate the world of entertainment.

If your child was allergic to peanuts, at first you would just remove any food containing peanuts from your home, but as your child gets older you’d have to teach them how to look for peanuts in ingredient lists, where peanuts often appear, what to do if they come in contact or accidentally eat one and how to live in a world where peanuts exist. It’s the same concept for a sensitive child, made more difficult because what triggers a reaction may not be as easy or consistent to identify as peanuts.

Sensitive children may be affected more than the average reader by:
  • the mood (the feeling the story imparts to the reader)
  • scenes of suspense, threat, fear, violence, or anticipation
  • the pace of the book (some books are intense with scenes of unending action)
  • characters that are mean, disturbing, menacing, cruel, or evil
  • scenes or characters that remind them of traumatic events in their own life
  • being surprised by evil or scary situations they’ve never been exposed to before
  • fantasy situations and characters—fantasy can take something evil and ramp it up like no other genre
  • unresolved conflict or cliff hangers
  • brutality or violence described in gory detail

Be observant and talk with your child about what exactly is bothering them when they have a reaction to a story. What types of things are sticking in their head? What is the prominent emotion dominating them? Did they pick that emotion up from the book directly (e.g. the character was afraid so now your child is afraid) or is that just how that part of the book made them feel (e.g. the character isn’t afraid but is in a scary situation that your child is afraid of)?

Books can be wonderful and we don’t want the sensitive child to be afraid of reading books. Reading is a life skill and reading fiction has so many benefits that would be lost if a child quits reading. So instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, let’s seek to identify what exactly causes the reactions and then help young readers develop the skills they need to manage their sensitivities or possibly overcome them.

I was a sensitive child myself. I had vivid dreams, recurring nightmares that sometimes lingered with me all day, and I could absorb the mood of a book or a movie as if it was my original mood all along. Now, as an adult, I know what aspects of entertainment affect my mental and emotional well-being negatively and I take the necessary steps to mitigate those exposures or intentionally choose what time of day or base mood I’m in before exposing myself to them. My ability to absorb the mood of stories is why I gravitate towards feel-good movies and books with solid moral compasses and happy endings; it’s also why I actively avoid or seek to be aware of stories involving drug abuse, psychological disorders, violent crimes—these are the stuff of nightmares for me and exposure to them tend to put me into a mood of anxiety and fear that is hard for me to shake off.

Sensitivities can and do change, and they can vary in intensity from day to day. If your child slept poorly, ate poorly, and had a trying day, they’ll be more likely to have a stronger reaction to something that they’d otherwise be able to handle. The mental/emotional state of your child needs to be taken into consideration when managing their sensitivities.

With the internet of today there’s no reason for us to go into a book blindly. While it can be fun to pick up a book and see how it goes, it may not be the wisest move if you have a sensitive child because being surprised by a trigger could be much of the problem. If you remove the surprise, your reader can be prepared and may even enjoy the book without any issues.

Tips for Selecting Books for the Sensitive Child

Observe the cover.

The cover can often indicate what the mood of the book will generally be. Book covers are designed to summarize/represent the book and to market to their target audience. Notice the color choices (light, bright, dark, dull, etc.), the title’s font (curvy calligraphy, jagged lines, etc.), the appearance of the characters (their age, expression, pose, action, clothing, etc.). What mood does the book cover give your child? Give you? “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a phrase you can throw out if you have a sensitive child. Judge it. This isn’t a hard and fast rule but it’s a good first indication of what to expect from the book and of course you can always move onto the next steps if the cover doesn’t give you enough information. This is a skill of awareness that can be practiced and improved. These days I can generally tell on sight if I will like a young adult or middle grade book. Their covers are particularly expressive because they are targeting kids by pulling them in with a visually appealing cover. Adult books can be much harder to judge by their cover, depending on the genre.

Know your genres.

Books are always categorized into genres—by target audience (adult, young adult, middle grade, children) and then by story genre. Many books have the story genre printed on the bottom of the back cover near the bar code or within the first pages on the book information page where they list publication date, copyright info, and the Library of Congress catalog info. Library websites will often give the genre when you click on that book’s listing. It’s helpful to be familiar with genres because each comes with their own array of content. When you know your genres, you learn what to expect from the content—what kinds of conflict there might be, what kinds of villains, what kinds of problems. For example, you won’t find the same kind of scary scene in a Christian historical romance book as you might in a fantasy novel. Remember, we’re trying to get a general idea of the content of the book for our sensitive reader. Fantasy is by far the wild card of genres because the author’s imagination is not bound to expected realities. Anything goes. This makes fantasy a blast to read but it can also have some very surprising and nightmarish content. I highly recommend learning more about a fantasy book if you’re considering giving it to your sensitive reader.

Do your research.

Read reviews—my own, Goodreads, another reader you trust, Common Sense Media—and look for the adjectives. Again, you are trying to get an overall sense of the book and learn if there are any questionable characters or scenes that might be too much for your sensitive reader. I almost always scan reviews on Goodreads before reading a new book. I ignore the star ratings and look for descriptors like “wholesome,” “happy ending,” “heartwarming,” “hope,” etc. If you really want to know about a book, read the spoiler reviews. These reviews don’t hold back and will share the good, the bad, and the ugly with much less restraint than a spoiler-free review. My reviews are spoiler-free but I do try to include any evil content or possible triggers in my “Recommendation Note” section of each review. Another trick for your research is to use an e-reader to search for keywords. This could easily be used to find profanity or even lead you to scenes of questionable content for your child.

Resources I Use for Book Research:
Common Sense Media – A nonprofit that provides reviews of movies, TV shows, books, and more with easy-to-understand rating system.

Goodreads – The world’s largest site for readers to post their book reviews, lists, and recommendations.

See also:

My MG Book Reviews

Please keep in mind that I haven’t just handed you black-and-white rules for judging books. Sometimes covers are totally wrong for the content of the book, the book only sits loosely in its prescribed genre, and reviews can be as various as the people reading the book. Find resources you can trust and use your best judgment.

Reading Tips for the Sensitive Child

Have a “day book” and a “night book.”

My sister, Ahlae, is 19 years younger than me and at the time of this writing she’s 11 and reading middle grade books. After hearing that her love of reading has grown over the last year but she’s having trouble getting to sleep at night after reading her book, I recommended she have a “day book” and a “night book.” This is a tactic I use with myself. As a sensitive reader, I can’t fall asleep after reading just anything—I’m too affected by the mood or events in the book—so it matters which book I read before bed. But I still want to read suspenseful books! The solution? If a book is suspenseful, edgy, or dark, I read it during the day when the sun is shining and my brain is functioning at higher capacity. Book content and mood affect me less during that time. If the book is slow-paced, calm, wholesome, mild, etc. then it’s a perfect book for me to read in the evening when it’s dark and I’m tired. These kinds of books are great to read at any time because they’re a mood booster, but especially at night when my defenses are weaker and emotions are more sensitive. This tactic works well for me and it seems to be working well for Ahlae too!

Read the book aloud.

This is the safest way to read questionable content with your sensitive child. It gives you complete control over what they will hear since you can easily skip over or soften any sections that they might struggle with. You can also discuss content immediately, as it comes up, because you can tune in to your child’s reactions in real-time as opposed to them coming to you later or they wake up with nightmares in the night and you have to puzzle out—when you’re half awake and your child’s upset—that they were bothered by a book’s content.

Choose physical books instead of audiobooks.

I LOVE audiobooks and am so glad they’ve gained popularity and a broader catalog over the past several years; however, audiobooks can be the worst format for a sensitive child to experience a book for the first time. The issue is control. Audio, much like movies, comes at you fast and it’s hard to prevent exposure unless you know exactly when it’s coming and have a fast trigger finger. However, much like if you were to read the book aloud yourself, you can still pause the reading and discuss immediately if any content needs to be addressed. If you’ve read the book before or are at least really familiar with the story, then by all means, enjoy audiobook. I just caution you to do your research before diving into a new book with your sensitive child. Also, if the book seems okay but you still have your doubts, employ the day-book-night-book concept.

Know when to stop.

This can mean taking a break, saving the book to read during the day, or noticing that your child is more sensitive today (they’re sick, didn’t sleep well, wonky attitude, etc.) and the book needs to be set aside until tomorrow. Taking breaks or picking a different time to read the book are great tactics for books that are worth finishing. The other option is to decide not to finish the book. As a recovering perfectionist who gets addicted to books even if they’re not great, I just want you to remember that it’s okay to not finish a book and not finishing is viable option. A word of caution: it is not helpful for sensitive readers to stop reading a book at the height of suspense—books are full of rising and falling action, from chapter to chapter and throughout the book as a whole. If the child stops reading before the falling action, before the conflict is resolved, they will leave the book in suspense rather than resolution and, let me tell you, suspense likes to linger in your head and your emotions. I recommend pushing through to a calmer part of the story so your reader can put the book down on a good note. Another way to get the resolution without finishing the book is consult the internet and read the spoiler reviews to find out what happens. I’ve done this many times when I wanted to quit a book but also wanted to resolve the suspense so I could actually close the book in my mind. It works!

Ask good questions.
It can be difficult to come up with intelligent questions about books, especially if you’ve never read it, but learning how to do so will help both you and your sensitive reader. Shoot for open-ended questions to get your kid talking. In order to hear what’s actually in your child’s head, try not to introduce emotions or opinions in your questions (E.g. “Is this book scary?”) Here’s some examples:
  • What are you picturing in your mind as you’re reading?
  • When you stop reading, what from the book sticks in your head?
  • Would you recommend what you are reading to someone you know? Why?
  • How does this book make you feel?
  • What do you enjoy about this book?
  • What don’t you like about this book?
  • Please explain the title to me.
  • Tell me about your favorite characters in this book. What do you like about them?
  • Describe your favorite part of the book.

There you have it: my reading tips and tricks for the sensitive child. I hope some of these tactics help you and your young reader to not be put off by sensitivities and instead be able to relish the joys of reading good books. Please shoot me a message—I would love to hear how my tips have helped your young reader or if you have any tips of your own!

As always, Happy Reading!