Don’t Think About Purple Elephants – a picture book antidote for anxious kids

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One of my sons is a worrier by nature. He stresses over things that seem trivial to others. I learnt long ago that it was completely pointless to say to him “Don’t worry about it!”. Of course, simply telling him to stop didn’t solve whatever he was worrying about and in fact only made him fret even more. Just like when someone says “Don’t think about purple elephants” and suddenly all that fills your mind is purple elephants…

Now that you’re thinking about purple elephants, it’s probably a good time to mention a new book by author Susan Whelan and illustrator Gwynneth Jones – Don’t Think About Purple Elephants.

It’s the story of a little girl named Sophie. Sometimes Sophie worries — not during the day when she is busy with family and friends, helping around the house or learning interesting things at school –

“She didn’t worry in the afternoons when she played games and drew pictures.”

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But at night, when everything is calm and quiet, Sophie starts to worry.

“What if they ran out of milk and she couldn’t have cereal for breakfast? What if her favourite shirt was still in the wash and she couldn’t wear it on the weekend? What if she forgot her lunch and she had nothing to eat at school?”

Sophie’s family try to help but their efforts only make things worse and give Sophie even more things to worry about. Then Sophie’s mum comes up with a new approach… that might just involve an elephant or two.

As the mother of a worrier, Sophie’s worries resonated – I have had plenty of conversations at bedtime about the timely return of library books, if school notices had made it to the teacher and whether undies were packed in the school swimming bag. And I also know that in checking things, fixing things or reassuring my son that all would be okay, a new set of worries would appear. The ‘purple elephants’ strategy is an excellent one (my solution was similar, although not quite as colourful!). Apart from a practical approach to dealing with worries, the book gently acknowledges that anxiety is commonly experienced and that it has a detrimental impact on our daily lives if left unchecked.

The story is beautifully enhanced by Jones’s sensitive illustrations. Sophie’s days are filled with bright colours but at night, when worries creep in, the illustrations switch to predominantly black and white, with the focus of Sophie’s worry the only item appearing in colour.

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For those who are thinking that the ‘purple elephant’ approach might be a good one but are also wondering just how many nights you can actually think about purple elephants, Jones has the answer – the endpapers of the book show a blue monkey and a hot pink giraffe. The possibilities are endless!

Don’t Think About Purple Elephants is suitable for children aged four years and over. Find it in all good book shops or online at Exisle Publishing.

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Katrina Whelen

Katrina studied planning and design, did the hard yards working in a big office building and then traded it all in for a relaxing (!) life at home with four children. She now fills her time with writing, completing a degree in genetics and taxiing her children around Melbourne to their various sporting commitments (not necessarily in that order).

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