Learning to feel: How storybooks help kids understand pain

Learning to feel: How storybooks help kids understand pain

Reading picture books with children can enable discussions about pain and injury, promoting empathy, emotional growth, and understanding of socio-cultural norms regarding pain, new research shows.

Researchers from the University of South Australia observed 20 families and young children (aged 3-6), finding that reading books frequently prompted interactions about pain and injury through the characters’ experiences. These included talking about causes of pain and injury, what to do when you’re injured or in pain, and the promotion of empathy and prosocial skills.

Study lead, Dr Sarah Wallwork, said that the research highlights the value of shared reading experiences and how parents can support their children to learn about pain-related concepts during a critical developmental period.

“Shared reading experiences present an important opportunity to connect with your child, and in this study, an opportunity to talk about pain and injury,” Dr Wallwork said.

“Through the storybooks’ characters we found parents and caregivers would pause to further explain what was happening within the pages.”

One example of this was observed when children read Julia Donaldson’s book Zog, in which Zog the dragon bumps his head and gets a bandage.

“When reading this, the parent said ‘Whoopsie daisy, because dragons are still learning, aren’t they?’, which linked the injury with learning and that it was normal to make mistakes when you were learning,” Dr Wallwork said.

“Similarly, when Zog flew into a tree, the parent said ‘Oh no! That would’ve hurt, wouldn’t it?’ which prompted the child to think about how painful or sore or hurt Zog might be. In this way, the parent is teaching the child about empathy, and appropriate responses.”

Conversely, when pain and injury were depicted in a light-hearted or unrealistic way, parents often responded in a way that showed they were entertained by the character’s misfortune, Dr Wallwork noted.

“And while this may seem harmless, the action could inadvertently socialise children to think that accidents and injuries can be funny,” she explained.

“Learning appropriate and empathetic responses to pain and injury in childhood are valuable for many reasons: they help children learn to understand that some pain is fleeting, that some injuries need the help of others, and that injury and pain are not always intertwined.”

Dr Wallwork said shared reading of picture books is an ideal way to talk about concepts around pain due to its didactic nature – as opposed to children’s television and movies, where children are often watching on their own and become passive recipients of information.

“Connecting the narrative and the characters’ experiences to a child’s own experiences makes these concepts more relatable for children,” she said.

“Essentially, we’re translating learning from the picture books into their own real-life. It all starts with the turn of a page.”