Fear, Learning And Reading

Boy under the blanket reading a book with a flashlight

The benefits of reading for children are well documented. Reading boosts language, vocabulary and communication skills; it improves concentration, cognitive reasoning and logic. Children who read do better at school (in all subjects) and adapt to change far more quickly and easily. Reading gives children the ability to empathise, teaches them about the world around them and helps their imagination develop. In fact, a British Cohort Study of 17,000 people found that those children who read for pleasure had significantly higher test results than those who didn’t, and that their love for reading had a greater effect on their social and economic outlook than if they had a parent educated to degree level.

Reading is, unquestionably, one of the best things that children can be encouraged to try. Curtis Jobling, author of the Wereworld children’s book series, goes one step further. He suggests that reading can specifically help children to overcome fear. In A Good Scare, he argues that as a child he was afraid of his own shadow and that reading helped him to not only rationalise his fears, but to explore and to enjoy them. “Childhood can be scary,” he writes “It can be an intimidating, frightening place, sometimes with genuine scares to contend with. Learning how to face one’s childhood fears for the first time is a rite of passage. Where better to start to do that than within the pages of a good book?”.

Reading relies on the reader’s active participation so, as Jobling points out, the scares in a book are easier to manage because the reader is in charge. A child can stop reading at any point, process what is happening and come to terms with it in his or her own time, then pick up the story again when he or she is ready. He/she can even put the book in the freezer Joey-style if it all gets to be too much. “Tasting terror from within the confines of a book provides the reader with a vicarious thrill, one which they’re in complete control of,” he says.

This ability to explore fear on their own terms will likely help children become emotionally strong and confident adults with a lifelong love for reading. It’s a compelling argument, not least because children’s mental health has been in the spotlight of late. In 2016, the UK’s Childline released figures that it received 50,000 calls in a year about mental health issues, an 8% rise in four years. In 2016 too, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge announced they would be promoting children’s mental health issues, partly due to their parental worries about the lack of outlets for children to discuss the pressures they are feeling. The National Institute for Mental Health in the US notes that one in five children suffer from mental illness, commonly classified as mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. UK mental health charity Young Minds reports similar statistics with a worrying aside that figures have doubled since 1980s.

Perhaps then, Jobling’s own experience and his genre of horror fiction could be the answer. Reading is fundamental to a child’s emotional growth and exploration. In addition to the ability to empathise and teaching children about the world by giving them different life experiences, books can help children to improve their own mental wellbeing. Children can work through what scares them in way that is both safe and fun, and learn about themselves in the process.