Helpful Books for Anxious Kids

Coming out on the other side of a life-threatening medical diagnosis and the ensuing treatment takes a lot of ingenuity and resources. We’ve run the gamete looking for ways to help Jack deal with anxiety and depression during and after his bout with cancer, including various types of therapy and a whole lot of books.

While there is no substitute for a good therapist (particularly if you are a worried parent who is also trying to deal), books are enormously helpful on a day-to-day basis. For the other parents out there dealing with anxious kids, I thought I would share some of the books that our family found helpful. Please note that the below photos contain Amazon affiliate links.

Story Books for Kids with Medical Challenges

Little Tree

Age Range: 4-8

Franklin Goes to the Hospital

Age Range: 3-8


Story Books to Help Children Deal with Emotions

Is a Worry Worrying You?

Age Range: 4-8

When I Feel… Series

Age Range: 4-8


Workbooks for Kids with Anxiety or Medical Challenges

My Feeling Better Workbook

Age Range: 6-12

What To Do When You Worry Too Much

Age Range: 7-12

Digging Deep Journal

Age Range: 12+ (Artistic kids and mature kids as young as 8-9 could do great with this, in my opinion)

Do you have recommendations to add? I would love to hear about more, particularly any books specifically for tweens and teens!


These books are helpful for anxious kids between the ages of 4-12 who are dealing with big emotions and medical-related anxiety.

Doors

It happens at bedtime. Wild-eyed and almost vibrating with anxious energy, Jack zooms through the house. He sweeps down the hall and into his bedroom, from which I hear frantic murmurs. Moments later he zooms out again and I catch him up in my arms to steady him. I feel his heart beating rapidly in his chest.

I ask him what’s wrong.

“I don’t know. I don’t feel right. Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in a dream? Do you ever look in the mirror and feel like it’s not you looking back?”

Yes, I say. Many times.

He doesn’t really hear me. He disengages from my arms and zooms around the room again, first toward the kitchen, next toward the door. “Doors,” he mutters and reaches for the knob. I say no and he turns on his heel and makes a beeline for his bedroom again.

I follow. He sits in his desk chair and taps his fingers on the desk. His brown eyes fill with tears and dart around the room.

“My brain doesn’t feel right. I think I’m broken.”

He goes on to tell me that everything is boring. He says that fairytales are lies that are written to cope with the fact that there is no real magic in the world. He reads them and he feels hope and then reality returns: there is no magic, there are only lies. He will never have adventures. He will get up in the morning and eat his boring toast at the boring table and then go to boring school…it is all so awful.

His eyes meet mine and he pleads, “Is there something that can fix this?”

He says he worries about taking pills. He worries he is not meant to take pills, that he is meant for something that the pills will suppress.

Where did he get this idea, I wonder… How can a 10-year-old even possess this level of critical thinking?

“I don’t know how to fix this, Son, but I have ideas for what to do to help right now. You don’t have to figure it out on your own.”

First I give him headache medicine for the pounding in his head. Then we find a music station on his iPad, a soothing station of instrumental lullabies.

Draw, I tell him. Draw the monsters that are in your head right now. Draw and listen to the music and breathe while I make a cup of tea.

I come back with a steaming cup of minty tea and hold it under his nose, telling him to take a whiff. He does and then continues drawing.

He sketches twisted faces, pairs of eyes, a vortex, a banana tree. An instrumental version of “Hey Jude” plays while he draws. A calm settles over him.

“I’m feeling better,” he says. “I’m starting to forget the thoughts. I just need to draw this one last thing.”

He draws a door. “I kept seeing doors,” he explains as he puts his sketch pad aside.

We climb into his loft bed together, where he sips tea while I read to him. He is mostly back to his easy-going self by the time I tuck him in and say goodnight.

I breathe a deep sigh as I walk away from his bedroom door. I am bewildered. I don’t know what happened to my son this evening or why it happened, but we got through it together.

It is behind him, for now. It is my turn to cry.

It’s A Hard-Knock Life (For Us Parents)

I have a migraine right now and my hip is fucking killing me. I would love to go to bed – I don’t even care that it’s not even 9pm on a Friday – but I can’t go to bed because Dez is trying to go to sleep in said bed and my presence is not conducive to him falling asleep.

This is parenthood. Sleep is like vacation to me – better, even, because it requires much less planning (and yet is no less elusive at times).

David and I are involved in a tag team effort at bedtime these days. I nurse Dez, then David steps in when Dez decides maybe he doesn’t want to go to sleep and tries to make a break for it. Daddy means business, though, and when he walks in the room, Dez knows his attempts at delaying bedtime are doomed.

Being the parent of a toddler is hard. I had forgotten just how hard. I guess that’s what happens when you wait eight years to have a second child! This little person who is most definitely his own little person and yet can’t do a damned thing for himself yet (except stuff too many yogurt melts in his mouth at one time) can make you question your choices in life, your sanity, and your self-worth. I had forgotten, but now I remember: I do not like the toddler years, Sam-I-Am.

Frankly, the pre-teen years aren’t seeming to be much better at this point. I’ve been meaning to write about all kinds of Jack-related things but it’s a big ball of complexity that I barely want to think about. The shortish version is this – he has been diagnosed with ADHD, dyscalculia (a math learning disability), and anxiety brought on by medical-related experiences. And in a year he goes back for more testing because the neuropsychologist isn’t sure she was able to get him all figured out.

At nearly the same time that we got the diagnoses and the rest of the results of the neuropsych testing, things at school got particularly bad. Jack and his teacher are at complete odds. It’s partly Jack’s fault and partly the teacher’s fault, and both of them are less than flexible people. We are working on Jack’s behavior, though I think we (and the teacher!) will just have to accept that Jack will have some bad days.

Therapy has been successful, though, so that’s a plus. Yay! I’ll take all the victories I can get.

Back to Dez…he’s a weird little fellow. He’s no longer that magical unicorn baby. He is vocal and can be clingy and so very quirky. He took his first unassisted steps a few days before Christmas, and then hasn’t walked since. He just goes around walking on his knees (which are now quite callused). He doesn’t say much, either. He has some words but very few that are clear. That doesn’t stop him from chatting, though. He talks a LOT – just not in English.

He also doesn’t sleep for shit. He is a terrible, no good, very bad sleeper. I think he must have gotten it from David because Jack and I both excel at sleeping!

He is a great eater, though. He’s got Jack beat on that!

So clearly we’re living a hectic existence right now. I know it won’t last forever and one day I will look back and miss the moments where Jack helps his brother walk around the living room or Dez snuggles up to me for midnight nursing sessions…but right now I am dreaming of peace and quiet.

Fewer headaches and a massage would be lovely, too.

Cancer is a Thief

Another school year has begun. Jack’s fourth grade teacher seems likes she knows her stuff. Right from the start she walked the kids through how to organize their day so that there are fewer opportunities to “forget” homework; they carry a binder with a planner inside and dividers for each subject. Every day the class reviews what is to be done that evening and writes it in their planners. Ms. A is helping them establish executive function skills, an area in which Jack has a lot of trouble thanks to cancer treatment.

In addition, she is starting off the year with light homework that is mostly review material. Which is great…

Except that Jack is struggling a bit with even this small amount of homework. He is fighting increased anxiety and having bouts of depression. By the second week of school, he was difficult to rouse in the mornings. He drags his feet getting ready to leave and is incredibly slow and distractible when doing any task. He complains of stomach aches or nausea a lot. He speaks of the pressures of being in fourth grade and he despairs about growing up.

My son has turned into Peter Pan.

Last week I met with Ms. A and the school’s new resource teacher to review Jack’s IEP. Afterward I felt exhausted and defeated. I’d tried to explain the issues we’re dealing with but they didn’t seem to grasp it. I guess that’s not a surprise – I feel like I am gaining new understanding all the time about why Jack’s experience with cancer has had such a profound impact on him academically and emotionally. The territory we’re in – that of a childhood cancer survivor – is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. Schools and even our oncology team are still learning what the long term effects of cancer treatment are.

As a parent of a survivor, I get a unique and up-close perspective (lucky me!). I’m only now really coming to understand that cancer is a time thief. This effect feels more pronounced with a child – a treatment that spans three and a half years impacts many more developmental phases in a child as compared to an adult.

Jack Kindergarten

Jack, age 5, first day of Kindergarten

In school and outside of it, Jack spent much of the last three and a half years in a haze. Compared to other kids his age, he didn’t play much of the time – he didn’t have the energy. He went from being a happy-go-lucky five-year-old to an intense and conflicted nine-year-old…he didn’t have much opportunity to be a kid in between those two points in time. He didn’t admit it at the time, but he admits it now: he was afraid of dying.

Academically, we are observing that Jack is missing some key building blocks for math. This past Thursday, we spent at least an hour together going over a fairly simple problem – 3,000 divided by 10. It was as if he had never divided before. And while he can answer 5×3 relatively easily, 5×30 is a whole different ball game. He hasn’t been able to connect increasingly complex math concepts with the basics.

Some of the building blocks are missing due to frequent absences from school for treatment or side effects from treatment. He missed half of kindergarten and started first grade a couple of months late because he had no ability to fight off illness. Once he was given the okay to go back to school, he rarely attended a full week until sometime in the later part of third grade. Generally if he was too sick to attend school he was also too sick (or just plain foggy-brained) to do any schoolwork at home. We did our best, but he was going at a snail’s pace while his fellow students sped along at school. When he did make it to school, he felt lost and like an outsider.

Other building blocks are missing due to the effect of chemotherapy on the brain. One of the key chemotherapy drugs Jack was given went into his spinal fluid and is known to cause learning problems in things like math and executive function. We were warned about this, but it’s not something we had the time to worry too much about because we were so busy going to and from various appointments and dealing with administering medications or battling side effects. We had limited emotional capacity for worrying about that, in any case. It was always in the back of my mind, but I had no choice but to push it aside and carry on.

Now Jack is faced with trying to catch up in an environment that barely acknowledges that he has fallen behind. He has to work much harder to stay on track – both to fill in the blanks and to learn the next thing.

Meanwhile, he has boundless energy, almost like he’s been saving it up all these years. He wants to PLAY and EXPLORE and TALK. But fourth grade is stricter, harder, has one less recess, and more kids per class. Fourth grade demands more maturity out of the kids and it just happens to coincide with a time when Jack is trying to shrug off the very thing that demanded maturity of him too soon and attempting to, essentially, recapture his youth.

Jack DC Ball Pit

Jack, age 9, in a giant ball pit in DC

Jack feels a sense of unfairness and has articulated it in his own way from time to time. “I’m dealing with cancer; why do I have to do homework?” is one line I’ve heard on several occasions. And there is the repeated refrain, “I don’t want to grow up! It’s too much pressure!”

It has taken me some time but I understand now. Three and a half years of treatment left Jack with only vague memories of what a carefree existence was like. He has his life, thankfully, but he also has PTSD and lives with so much fear. He can’t get time back – cancer has stolen his innocence and so much of his childhood.

Many nine-year-olds struggle with school and homework – in that, Jack is not alone. But Jack is the only one in his class (and, as far as I know, the only one in his school) who is dealing with those things while trying to make up for years of lost time and heal his soul. The school faculty have no idea how to help him.

Neither do I, really, but I won’t stop trying.

No Way Out But Through

When Jack was diagnosed with Leukemia three and a half years ago, I focused on the “End of Treatment.” I thought we would do what we could to get through the difficult treatment process, but that eventually we would be done.

Well, to be perfectly honest, I thought we would be done when the Induction phase (where remission is achieved) was complete – 30 days after diagnosis and the beginning of treatment. Then I readjusted my thinking – we would have most of the hard stuff behind us after Consolidation – the chemo-heavy “blast the hell out of any remaining cancer cells” phase. I figured Maintenance would be unpleasant, but easier that those prior phases – I thought we would pretty much be done once we got to Maintenance. But then Maintenance lasted over two years and while much of it went smoothly, we did not feel done at all – instead, the hardship of all we’d had to endure up to that point caught up to us.

THEN I thought – End of Treatment is the ticket! End of Treatment would come and this business would be behind us! But, well…

I’ve lost count of the number of therapy sessions Jack has had at this point. With this latest therapist, we’re at least past 10 sessions by now. This therapist has been the most helpful, and Jack has had two successful blood draws! By “successful,” I in NO WAY mean easy. There was shaking and tears, and both times I thought we would not get the draw. But Jack managed to push past his fear and do it!

The first time he was successful (after 8 therapy sessions and countless “needle exposures” at home), he felt jubilant and accomplished afterward! He even said it hurt much less than he thought it would. But the second time was harder for some reason, and afterward he felt tired and defeated and weepy. It didn’t help that one of the phlebotomists in the lab muttered, “He’s never going to be ready,” which Jack heard.

Two steps forward, one step back. Can I bill the lab for the therapy appointments, ya think?

As the therapist delves deeper with Jack into the medical trauma he has experienced, the emotions (mostly negative) get harder to deal with and manifest that difficulty comes out in various ways. Fear randomly comes and goes, insomnia often plagues him, and Jack has felt more of a need to cling to his parents. Some OCD tendencies showed up during the second blood draw, something we hadn’t seen in him before, and then again in his therapy session the next day. Depression – a despair that no 8-year-old should even be able to contemplate – came over him at bedtime on Sunday.

Having gone through trauma therapy myself, I know how hard it is and that when you are in it, it feels like nothing will ever be okay. There are many forces within our minds that try to protect us from feeling the pain of trauma – they tell us to run from even distant memories of it. It’s exhausting to fight your own brain. It takes a fierce, stubborn person to do it, and lots of support.

I have no doubt Jack can do it. We will support him every step of the way.

But he has many doubts and fears. After the therapy appointment Saturday, which had him so upset that he started to run around the room near the end and stopped being cooperative, I tried to reassure him that it’s all worth it.

“It doesn’t feel worth it! It feels terrible!”

I know, buddy. It really, really sucks.

The blood test results – what much of this effort and urgency is about – look pretty good. Jack’s immune system is recovering, which is very reassuring. But for some reason, his iron is super low and that leads to other worries, more medications (thankfully, just a liquid iron supplement at the moment), and additional tests.

We don’t want more worries, more medications, or more tests. Our cups not only runneth over from these things – they’re being crushed by the weight of them. We don’t want anymore, thank you!

We have no other choice, though, so it’s one foot in front of the other. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I have to stop thinking in terms of when cancer will be behind us. When you’re in it, you can’t see through to the other side.

You just have to keep going anyway.