Best Books for a Preschooler’s Big Emotions

There is nothing like my 4-year-old son’s big emotions to make me feel completely unprepared to be a parent. I feel insecure. I try to be compassionate. I try to be still and near. I demonstrate strategies for managing anger and disappointment. I buy books (some of my favorites to follow). I make sure he gets exercise and fresh air. I try to be on the same page with my husband who has a shorter threshold for patience during meltdowns. I’ve tried a chart. I worry. I analyze. I lose sleep.

These are the formative years, they say. Now is when kids start to build patterns of behavior and self-regulation. No pressure.

Not all parks have playgrounds, sweetheart.

I have been partnering with his very patient and caring teacher to try to understand what is causing a recent uptick in incidents of shoving, name calling, etc., but yesterday was much like the days before. A little improvement followed by a brawl at the end of the day. I ended my day crying before bedtime. It was too late to call a fellow mom. I felt alone, although my husband was reassuring. There is just something different hearing the same words from a fellow mom. My son is not a bully. Is he?

This morning after our jog at the crack of dawn, my neighbor and fellow mom kindly lent me the book, Have You Filled a Bucket Today?: A Guide to Happiness for Kids. I had managed to both cry and laugh during a two-minute sprint.

Shortly after returning from my run, my kiddo stumbled downstairs from his room to say, “I don’t want to go to school today. I hate my school.” He saw the book in my hands and asked me to read it to him.

The theme of the book is that everyone in the world has an invisible bucket. When we are happy, our bucket is full. When our buckets are empty, we are sad or angry. We can be a bucket filler (doing nice things for others, or saying nice things, even small stuff), which fills our own bucket as well as that person’s bucket; or we can be a bucket dipper, which is when our words or actions take away from the other person’s bucket. As you can guess, that also makes our own bucket less full.

Something about this book really struck a chord with him. He immediately started telling me that snuggling with him filled his bucket. His baby brother waving at him filled his bucket. He asked if using his manners filled my bucket. He got it! My husband asked my son’s teacher if she was familiar with the book, and she was. She is going to try to use that language with him today to see if it helps. I hold my breath and hope for a breakthrough.

Will I ever know what is going on with my son’s emotions right now? How long will this last? Is this a sign of a larger problem? These are things that are going through my head for now. Because I run to books for answers for both of us, below are a few that I/we have read recently and enjoyed.

For him:

  1. Angry Octopus: An Anger Management Story introducing active progressive muscular relaxation and deep breathing – by Lori Lite and Max Stasuyk: I did not have to tell my kiddo to try these techniques as I read the story. He did it automatically. I have tried this type of relaxation myself, and while it is effective, I am not sure that he will try these techniques oIn his own in the midst of a meltdown, but perhaps if we keep this in rotation, it will be on his mind.
  2. The Best Behavior Series:  Words Are Not For Hurting –  I like that this book balances the message that words are not for hurting, but our words can be used for positive reasons. Hands Are Not For Hitting – Same series, same idea. We bought this board book when he was much younger before he could express himself at all. I never imagined we would have to bring it back out again. Even though this is more simple, the message is clear about what we use our hands for, such as helping, staying safe (crossing the street holding hands), staying healthy (washing hands), playing (making mud pies), and what we don’t use our hands for (hitting).
  3. How do Dinosaurs Stay Friends – by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague: Because dinosaurs.
  4. A Sick Day for Amos McGee – This is quite possibly one of the sweetest books I have ever encountered about caring for other people. The illustrations are precious and the message of the zookeeper being cared for by all the animals he normally looks after is a great way to talk about reciprocity.
  5. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day – A classic, I did enjoy reading this with my son because he loves the long sentences that make the reader speed up and gasp for air to finish. My only complaint is that it covers the What? (Alexander is having a bad day), the So What? (Nothing is going as planned, and he wants to move to Australia), but there is a lacking Now What? I filled in my own discussion afterward, but it falls a little flat at the end.
  6. Kids Yoga Stories: This series by Giselle Shardlow is phenomenal, and is helping my son with calm down time during transitions. A new favorite in this series is Good Night, Animal World: A Kids Yoga Bedtime Story.

For me:

  1. Positive Discipline for Preschoolers: For Their Early Years- Raising Children Who are Responsible, Respectful, and Resourceful – I love this book. I don’t think I am doing it right, because many of the approaches have not worked, although in general terms, it has helped me have the courage to remain calm and create a safe space for him to have his feelings.
  2. Strong Moms, Strong Sonsby Meg Meeker: This is a book I will probably return to over and over, as the advice covers childhood, adolescence, and beyond.
  3. How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk – by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish: This is a book I read and recommended to a dear friend. We both agreed that there are some great pieces of advice for how to listen to and respond to anyone you love-not just kids.

I would love to hear about books that have helped you, your children, or your mom friends work through the preschool phase of giant emotions in small packages. Share your favorites in the comments section!




Sticks and Stones Will Break My Bones, Your Words Will Always Hurt Me.

Dear Eldest son,

Tonight you scared your mommy and daddy by leaving our backyard where you were having an after-school snack, and went across the street to our neighbor’s front yard to play with their kids without asking us first.

When we saw you across the street, we had the now-famous mix of elation and anger that parents achieve in times like this. I calmly called you back home, but you had to have known you were in trouble. You fought me coming back in the house, and once inside, you had the meltdown of your life. Believe me, we thought we had already seen the worst.

Normally, we don’t do time out because that just doesn’t work with you. We often do calm down time together, working on breathing, etc. Tonight, I was so angry with you and I had been so scared that I put you in time out because I needed a time out. You sat there telling me how mean I am, that I am a bad mommy, that you think I am stupid. That you hate me.

I took away your story time, something that I would normally not take away, but I wanted you to notice. I wanted a punishment that you would feel. I was reacting to my own hurt.

I managed to sit nearby so you would not feel abandoned during your big emotions and I went to my happy place. I tried deep breathing. I tried focusing on the sound of your little brother’s whining that was starting in the next room, no doubt in sympathy of your pain.

I realized that nothing worked. It hurt me to see you furrow your brow and hurl insults my way, and there was no getting around it with intellectualizing where you are developmentally, and that you don’t really mean those things.

You hurt me. The one who loves you unconditionally. The one who carried you in her belly, and who thinks of you 1 million times a day. The one who will advocate for you and love you every day of her life. My heart was broken.

But I stayed with you. I outlasted the wall punches and floor kicks. I braved the storm, and was there when you collapsed on my legs in pitiful heaves and moans as you sought the comfort that you find in me. I rubbed your back, I pulled you close, and I made you laugh. You are four. I get it.

We got through this, kiddo. It may not be the last meltdown, but I hope that we both learned something today. Me, that I have the strength to have my heart broken and still give you my big love without yelling back. You, that I will always be here for you, and that the best thing you can do for people you love is to sit and listen, and do your best to understand what they really need. Even if it is to just be near and quiet.

I am sorry I took away your books, but I had to keep my word. You get your stubborn side from me.

It’s my job to keep you safe, both physically and emotionally. It’s also my job to do the same for myself. Together, we will grow. I promise.




How Kids Yoga Stories is Helping My Son Manage Big Emotions

Two years ago, I was introduced to the wonderful line of Kids Yoga Stories, by Giselle Shardlow, when I won a giveaway hosted by Pragmatic Mom. At the time, kiddo #1 and I were working on movement.


He was only two and a half when we won the book, so his attention span was short and he was soon on to the next new book, and from there, the book was lost among the piles in his bedroom. Then we moved cross-country.

Several weeks ago, we rediscovered this book, and I had that Eureka! moment. The winter months in Colorado can require creative energy outlets, and this was just the kind of outlet he needed that day. I asked him if he wanted to go through the book, and he begrudgingly answered, “yes” in that 4-year-old way that suggests he would rather be swinging from the rafters.

I told him we would go through the book before story time that evening. As we moved through the poses, we laughed at how we looked like animals, wonderful mother/son moments that have become more special now that kiddo #2 is around.

We ended with us lying down with our eyes closed, breathing deeply and slowly. He sat up afterwards with the refreshed sigh that I recognized from my yoga classes of yesteryear.

The next night, he was begging to do yoga again. We talked about how it calms us down after a long day and gets us ready for bed. He was hooked.

A few days ago, my little guy who is full of big emotions, asked me mid-meltdown if we could do yoga to calm down. My heart made a little leap and I ran to fetch the book. Lo and behold, my son was on to something. He had learned a way to manage his feelings that didn’t involve screaming and punching things.

I have so much to learn from him. I had not considered the benefits of doing yoga with him in the moment, in the thick of it. I now keep the book downstairs, where many of his big emotions happen during his transition time home from preschool. It’s hard to be four.

Taking a page from his book, I signed up for lunchtime yoga at my workplace, and rediscovered my own refreshed sigh again.