Those moments from her childhood in the 1980s stayed with Kelly and when it came time to write and illustrate her chapter book “Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey,” she knew she needed to include them in the story. A scene in which the young Marisol lets out her frustrations while alone in her room struck a chord with readers. “Whenever I give talks, there are always kids in the audience who are just nodding and saying ‘me too,’ ” she recalled.
“Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey” is one of several books released this year geared toward elementary-school-age readers that explore what it’s like experiencing sadness and anxiety as a child — a time in which sadness can be confusing for children to experience and difficult for adults to properly address. “Especially with little kids, people will say things like ‘well, that child doesn’t look depressed,’ but a lot of times kids don’t show sadness like that,” said Jill Emanuele, senior director of the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “You have to keep in mind what your child’s ability to talk about their emotions is.”
Because children may not be able to articulate their sadness, it is important to think about the best way to begin these discussions. “If you know your child expresses themselves and says things like ‘I am sad,’ ‘I am angry,’ then you might be able to get that out of them faster,” she said.
For children who have a harder time expressing feelings, parents should be prepared to open a conversation about sadness in an approachable way. “You may have to ask them something like ‘I’m wondering if you’re sad or you’re having sad feelings?’ or ‘I’m wondering if you’re not feeling like yourself?’ ” said Emanuele. Other signs to look for are a sudden increase in tantrums, irritable behavior or an increase in physical symptoms like stomachaches.
The kind of emotional turmoil that’s expressed through moody or angry behavior is what is depicted in illustrator and author Tracy Subisak’s picture book, “Jenny Mei Is Sad,” which was released last summer. The character Jenny Mei is a girl who loves to laugh and joke, but her sadness also means that she is not always nice.
It was her own experience with intense sadness that inspired Subisak to create the story that became “Jenny Mei Is Sad,” which she began about the time her mother died in 2017. “I was going through something really hard and it took a lot of personal effort and vulnerability to open up about it,” she recalled.
When thinking about how she could tell a story about the sadness she experienced as an adult in a way that was understandable to children, Subisak knew that the images depicting Jenny’s relationship with her best friend were important. “This is how we notice things: We look and we notice something’s a little off,” noted Subisak.
Subisak also prioritized showing the strength of the friendship to display how other children can be there for a buddy who is struggling. “We can hold our friend’s hand and walk home with them or we can just be quiet and notice what’s going on. Or we can play ‘kick the rock,’ which is a nice distraction during a tense moment,” said Subisak.
Subisak hopes that parents and teachers can use those moments to open up discussions about sadness while discussing her book. Jenny Mei often cycles through other emotions as well and tries to joke and laugh with her best friend when she isn’t at her best. “In my experience, sadness is complex,” said Subisak. “We can’t just live in sadness our whole lives.”
Emanuele notes that because these conversations are so vulnerable for parents and children, planning where and when to have them is key. “It’s sometimes helpful to have these conversations in an environment that is not so direct,” such as while driving or taking a quiet walk, she said. “That way the kid has a bit more space.”
When considering if it is time to talk with a pediatrician or child therapist about a child’s feelings of sadness, it’s important to consider both the duration and severity of what they are experiencing, she said. While occasionally feeling down is natural, “if your child says to you, 'I’ve been really sad the last couple of weeks,’ you want to understand better what’s going on.”
Of course, it is impossible to discuss children experiencing sadness in 2021 without also talking about the enormous strain children have been under for more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. When Christine Day began “The Sea in Winter,” a novel about a middle-schooler struggling with depression after she is forced to quit dance class after a knee injury, she had no idea it would be released at a time when most children in the United States were also cut off from their creative outlets due to pandemic lockdowns.
“It turned out that this book became more relatable than I had even anticipated it being,” said Day. A former dancer, she channeled her own experiences to create Maisie, who like Day is Native American and grew up in Washington state. “I wanted to explore what it might look like for a young person going through their first heartbreak,” Day said in reference to Maisie’s love of dance. “Maisie is a ballet student, but she goes through a physical trauma that leads to this mental and emotional turmoil.”
But while children have always experienced sadness, some parents still hesitate to talk about negative emotions with their kids. “A lot of parents are concerned that if they ask, it's going to make it worse, and that's simply not the case,” said Emanuele. “Asking is bringing the conversation out into the open.”
Kelly knows how challenging these conversations can be. “It’s very hard for parents and educators and adult guardians to sit down with a kid and say ‘tell me what’s on your mind,’ ” she said. But, she warns, if parents don’t step in, the child will usually find an outlet for those feelings anyway. “If a young person doesn’t feel like they have someone that they can talk to about these issues, they will create them for themselves, and eventually they will seek out people to fill that void,” she said. “Those people may not be the ones that you want in your child’s life.”
Ultimately, Kelly hopes that the recent rise in the number of books that seek to normalize talking about mental health will help create a world in which children know that their feelings are normal and that they are more than their worst moments. “I want people to recognize some of Marisol’s sadness and anxiety, but I also really wanted them to recognize her humor and imagination,” she said. “I want readers to know her as a complete and full person.”
Lakshmi Gandhi is a freelance journalist and social media manager based in New York City. She can be found on Twitter @LakshmiGandhi.
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