How to Know If a Book Is Too Much for Your Anxious & Sensitive Teen
If book choice for your anxious and sensitive teen is important, then how do we know what is too much for them? After all, reading with teens can be variable. What is too much for my teen might not be a big deal for yours. So, how do we identify books that we need to avoid? How to Know If a Book Is Too Much for Your Anxious & Sensitive Teen discusses some guiding principles to help you and your teen navigate the world of literature, so you can create a positive book list in their high school years.
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We also talked about How to Choose Books for Your Anxious & Sensitive Teens which was an introduction to the idea that we need to help curate our teen’s high school book list if they struggle with mental health. Ultimately, we want them to be discerning about what they can manage and how to process emotions when they come across content that is difficult for them.
What Makes a Book Difficult for Anxious & Sensitive Teens?
What makes a book a no go for your teen might not be the same for mine.
Some of our teens can handle some kinds of difficult content and others can’t handle any at all.
It’s an individual experience.
However, they have some commonalities.
- Books often orphan and abuse children and teens– I understand this sets up the conflict. More on this in a moment.
- The child or teen is usually different– and they are treated cruelly for their differences
- These children are almost always neurodivergent– which is evident by how they are described and how they behave and it makes their treatment all the more difficult when our kids and teens see themselves so clearly in these characters.
- Neurodivergent kids, especially those with gifted intensities have a strong sense of justice– and they are further damaged by the injustice of the character’s situation. These are kids who lie awake worrying about injustice in the real world. They don’t need their books to add to their burden.
- Bad things are described in too much detail– this can produce anxious thoughts in teens who battle anxiety and take on needless stress.
- The feelings of the character experiencing the abuse is described– this is a hard no for kids who struggle with their own mental health.
Why Avoid Hard Books with Your Anxious & Sensitive Teen?
I can hear the naysayers now.
Maybe these are the voices in your own head:
You can’t keep your teen in a bubble.
This is the real world and our teens need to be able to function in it.
Teens need to be handle whatever comes their way, so we might as well have them experience it before they leave home.
While there are elements of truth in these words, it’s not the whole story for your anxious and sensitive teen.
Let’s talk about it:
- We are talking about teens with a diagnosed (or as yet diagnosed) mental illness– so being intentional about being mentally healthy is everything. This includes book choice.
- Our teen’s reality is already difficult (in ways that neurotypical people do not experience)– we do not need to add to that burden through their education and reading choices. Talk about a way to kill the love of reading…
- If your teen is bothered by or sensitive to a topic, there is no reason to ruminate on it further– I mentioned this in the post on how to choose books for your sensitive teen. They are already aware and are upset by the issue. After all, isn’t that why we want our students to read these books? To make them aware and to wrestle with the thing? Consider that DONE for these teens.
- Our teens live the life of some of the characters they are reading about– Some of our teens feel that lonely place and to see it played out on the page in detail is too much. It doesn’t take long for them to connect with a character as my 16yo did with just one chapter of Jane Eyre.
- There are better books– If a book is problematic, there are others that do a better job. Choose them.
- These trauma inducing incidents in books add up– You may come across a book that is problematic and not know the damage it has inflicted until later.
- People process differently– some deal with anxiety outwardly and others process more internally. It’s not 100 percent, but how we process tends to run along gender lines with boys exploding and girls imploding. So, you may not understand until later what effect a difficult book has had on your anxious and sensitive teen.
Remember that experiences add up for our anxious and sensitive teens. Do you really want to add to their struggle with poorly chosen books just because it’s on a list? One way to advocate for your teen is to help them curate a list that contributes to good mental health.
What about High School Book Lists?
You can have a successful high school English course without reading difficult things.
It requires thoughtfulness.
There is no gold standard of books to read in high school.
There are many suggested book lists you can find on standards sites and blogs and even from curriculum developers.
But, does it matter?
A book list reflects your teen’s journey through literature.
You and your teen can set goals and choose books that make sense for them and for their high school experience.
Rest assured that there are some common titles your teens will be able to read. All will be well.
Inside Homeschooling High School by Design Membership, we talk a lot about book lists in high school. We talk about what makes a good one for your teen, what can be on it, and how to use it for high school and then college admission.
You have permission to curate your own high school book list with your teen.
What Happens If a Book You Start Goes Bad?
Here’s quick list of strategies for making the pivot when you find out a book you thought might be ok, takes a turn for the worse.
- Stop Reading– this one may seem obvious, but in case it isn’t I’m giving you permission to dump the book.
- Talk about It– discuss with your teen why it’s time to change the book
- Discuss It– talk about what made the book difficult for your teen to handle
- Tell the Rest of the Story– if the book has some redemption for the characters, share it and talk about it.
- Look for a Book to Replace It– what make a book worthy to be on your list? Seek a book out that fits your criteria.
- Skip the Problematic Sections– you could make the choice to stick with the book by skipping chapters and keeping with the parts of the book that are not anxiety producing.
A book might be worth finishing with modifications if there is resolution before the end of the story and the behavior toward abuse is characterized as something that shouldn’t have happened to the main character.
Choosing Better Books for Our Anxious & Sensitive Teens
If a book is too much for our teens, look for an alternative book that will share some of the same poignancy as the one you need to drop.
I’ll share one example.
Jane Eyre is a beloved book for many.
As I am in the habit of sharing books with my teens that may be outside the norm for their gender, we agreed that Jane Eyre might offer many evenings of interesting conversation (if you’ve never read a book primarily for girls to your teen boys, you are missing out!).
I had literally just told my 16yo that we would be focusing on cultivating peace- in all areas.
My next move was to listen to the first chapter of Jane Eyre on audio, a book which was familiar to me but I had not remembered the details of the story beginning.
And, just like that, I failed.
In the first chapter, Jane, who is obviously marvelously neurodivergent, is abused and misunderstood and the feelings of her abuse are shared in detail as the injustice mounts.
The next day my teen was out of sorts and it wasn’t until late afternoon when he blurt out his feelings about the abuser.
Jane Eyre approaches the issue of women and independence and honor. It does this by telling the story about an unfortunate orphan who must navigate a world where she is misunderstood and abused. The end is happy-ish and I won’t share any spoilers, but the book has the distinct mark of the Brontes who were a brooding bunch of women.
Instead, you could choose Little Women which is often mischaracterized as a book only for young girls.
To the contrary, the story of the March sisters is a wonderful coming of age tale for both boys and girls. Read about how we used Little Women with our teen boys.
There are many books featuring neurodivergent characters that approach their differences with grace and positivity, if only by the character themselves and the people around them. Choose them to read with your teens.
Books that Are Too Much for Our Anxious & Sensitive Teens
Try all of Shakespeare.Joshua, 16
That’s the answer I got when I asked what should go on the list.
Yes, he’s serious.
So, how about an annotated bibliography?
These are a few titles that are a definite no for some of our teens.
- Shakespeare– since I left this provocative opinion right at the top, I’ll explain myself. Shakespeare, although he is revered in literary history, is just plain mean. Even a play like, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is full of mischief that is just not nice. Most things in his catalog are either tragic (of course) or they are funny at the expense of others. Which, to some, is just not funny. And before you say it, seeing it in person made it all the worse because it made the mean teasing abundantly clear.
- Hatchet– or pretty much anything by Gary Paulsen. These are quintessential tales of survival whose target audience is middle grade.
- The Hunger Games– some of my teens did fine and some did not. The entire premise of the novel and its sequels is one of tragedy based on who a person is.
- Sweep– my kids loved the other Jonathan Auxier books, but this one was extra at the beginning so the rest of the story remained untold. Can we we please take a break from the orphaned and abused children and teens?
- To Kill a Mockingbird– a classic but one that details racism and sexual abuse. You don’t need to read this book if you feel these injustices deeply. The details will not make you a better person for having read them.
- The Book Thief– set in Nazi Germany, this book is one of my oldest’s favorite books. No one else can handle it.
- Oliver Twist– or just about anything by Charles Dickens. I mean, he wrote about child labor and London during the Industrial Revolution.
- Jane Eyre– I just want to reiterate this one!
- Echo– middle grade fiction is not exempt from difficulty. This one was too much for my youngest.
- The Giver– is another example of rough middle grade fiction. People adore this book, but the dystopia is hard.
You may have your own lists of books that are difficult for your teen.
I’ll say it again.
You have permission to curate your own reading list with your teens. Choose better books.
More Help for Reading with Your Neurodivergent Teens
- How to Choose Books for Your Anxious & Sensitive Teens– this post is all about what makes a good book for teens who struggle with anxiety. You’ll find an annotated book list and more about how you can have a challenging high school English course without reading all the hard things.
- 100 Books You Should Read by the Time You Turn 20– this is a book list for teens by our teens in response to the NPR top 100 Books. Just a reminder that what may be ok for some of my teens is not ok for them all and you may find unexpected titles on the list.
- The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Reading Culture in Your Home– it’s never too late to start and reading with your teens is among the best things you can do to spend time with them.
- Why Little Women Isn’t Just for Girls– since I give this book as an alternative to Jane Eyre, I thought I’d share how we read this book with older teens, including boys.
- Books for Teens and Why YA is a Genre Not a Reading Level– an episode of the Read Aloud Revival Podcast in which YA books are discussed. This is a great listen (or you can read the transcript) if you want to know more about the content found in YA books.
- Why Read Aloud to Kids Who Can Read to Themselves– another Read Aloud Revival Podcast about the benefits of reading aloud to older kids and I think this includes teens. Plus, reading aloud difficult material to our teens means we can find the work around our teens need to hearing the book.
Sign up and Get More Support for Reading with Your Teens
When you subscribe, you’ll receive the free guide, How to Engage Your Teen with Books: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Reading with Teens.
After homeschooling high school for over 10 years, I’ll share tips for making connections with your teens through books, even when you don’t have time to read everything their reading.
Plus, you’ll get even more support for homeschooling out of the box, sick, and neurodivergent teens.
Find Community as You Homeschool Neurodivergent Teens
One of the tough things about homeschooling teens who struggle with mental illness or any neurodivergence like learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, etc., is that it can be isolating.
It’s hard to watch our teen’s peers roll on with their normal, when our teen is falling behind due to their neurodivergence.
Homeschooling High School by Design Membership is all about providing community and live calls to help you with issues related to homeschooling out of the box, neurodivergent, or sick teens.
You don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to have a helping hand as you navigate launching your teen!
In the end, we, along with our teens, have the power to choose the books that provide a challenge through uplifting stories that build into good mental health.
It is not a requirement to read books that are harmful to our teens.
A book list is something you make, not something you adopt off of the internet through well meaning sources.
Advocate for your teens.
Curate a book list that belongs to your teen.