How reading helps mental health and wellbeing

10th February 2022

At Doorstep Library, we are firm believers that the impact of reading on children’s mental health goes well beyond the development of strong literacy skills. Over the last ten years of delivering our home reading projects, we have had the precious opportunity of witnessing how reading can empower children in a million different ways, as they grow up and find their feet in the world.

The issues children face today

This week is Children’s Mental Health Week, so we thought that we would take a moment to reflect on the powerful and positive influence that books can have on children’s wellbeing. In 2020, an NHS study found that one in six 5 to 16-year-olds in England were likely to have a mental health problem [1], a significant increase from one in eight in 2017.

From a very young age, children often have to deal with pressure at school, a potentially unstable situation at home, feeling isolated or struggling to fit into their social circle. They might also be affected by bereavement, families splitting up or having to take on adult responsibilities, all of which can weigh heavily on a child’s shoulders and deeply affect their wellbeing. These issues have only been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and multiple lockdowns.

How reading helps mental health and wellbeing

This is where books come into the picture. Research from the National Literacy Trust shows that increased literacy can positively impact mental wellbeing. ‘Children who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged’ [2].

Emotional intelligence and confidence

Through reading about different lives and characters, children learn to connect and better understand the people around them. They become more aware of the richness and vastness of the world which opens their eyes to other cultures, backgrounds and life experiences. As a result, they will be more likely to reach out of their comfort zone and expand their horizons as they slowly progress into adulthood.

Books can also empower children to understand and manage complex emotions. Through a story, they can learn how to recognise what is happening inside them as they empathise with a character going through a similar situation. They feel more confident about themselves as they discover that they’re not the only ones going through a difficult experience. With the right support, books can play a therapeutic role by creating a safe space for children who have experienced trauma, life challenges and relationship difficulties. Through a book, they can explore their emotions and vulnerability by observing a familiar feeling or situation from a distance.

Developing communication skills

For preschool-age children, books are very much an interactive experience which aims to develop their speech and language skills. This enables and encourages them to share their feelings and needs with others. As they grow older, proficient readers will develop a more extensive vocabulary, gaining the means to communicate comfortably and confidently with others. A worry shared is a worry halved, so if children don’t have the right words to express their concerns, that can make them bottle up. Feelings might come to the surface in ways that are unhealthy and harder to interpret.

Creativity, escapism and fun

As with adults, reading can be a powerful and fun way for a child to unwind at the end of a long day, allowing their minds to run free from any negative thoughts they may be experiencing. For a child, a bookshelf can be the portal to an infinite number of worlds they can explore and escape to when feeling overwhelmed. Not all children respond to books in the same way: some will relate to the words, while others will be drawn to the illustrations. And a book does not have to be focused on emotions to help children with their wellbeing. Often what we need the most to cheer us up is simply a good laugh! A silly joke book that will get children rolling with laughter or a creative story involving role play can go a long way in making a child’s day. Whatever allows children to be children, is a big thumbs up from us.

This week we have put together a fantastic list of book titles which can help your child to explore mental health issues.  We also have a few tips on how to make reading an everyday part of life at home for the whole family.

At a time when many of us are feeling the impact of the last couple of years, we believe it is important to support initiatives like Children’s Mental Health Week.  Place2Be offer a range of resources for families and educators, as well as Parenting Advice from mental health experts.

[1] Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2020: NHS digital, 22 October 2020

[2] Mental Wellbeing, Reading and Writing. National Literacy Trust, 2018