Henrietta the Hedgehog Helps Children with COVID Anxiety

By Mary Kate Llamas

While on maternity leave in 2020, Laura Anderson Kirby, PhD, a child clinical psychologist with the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, noticed a change in behavior in her three-year-old. She felt this wasn't only the typical adjustment of becoming a big brother, but rather the effects of a major life change compounded with the pandemic. ​

“COVID-19 and schools being switched to remote learning had a big impact on kids," said Anderson Kirby. “Kids thrive on routine and many become anxious when routines change. A lot of kids rely on school for their routine. It gives them consistency and predictability, which helps children feel safe. Some children also rely on school for critical educational and psychological support services, positive adult mentors, and even food."

Because of her experience with her own son, Anderson Kirby wanted to figure out a way to help facilitate discussions about the pandemic with kids. She decided to write a children's book.

Henrietta's Thistleberry Boots" follows the story of Henrietta, a hedgehog who is forced to stay home from school for a year because of an outbreak of poisonous thistleberries in the forest. Henrietta has to learn how to wear boots to protect her normally bare paws from the thistleberries and how to be flexible with changes to her daily life. 

When children talk about whats happening to a character in a story, it is less threatening than opening up immediately about their own big feelings.
Laura Anderson Kirby, PhD

“When children talk about what's happening to a character in a story, it is less threatening than opening up immediately about their own big feelings," said Anderson Kirby. “I intended the book to be used in classrooms and at home as a way to start a conversation about how kids are feeling and coping with changes related to COVID-19. One hope is that the book will be used to help children adjust to returning to in-person learning after being away from the classroom for a prolonged period." Dealing with change can apply to many situations in life, and Anderson Kirby hopes that "Henrietta's Thistleberry Boots" will be a useful resource to help young children through the many obstacles and transitions they face each year, even once the COVID pandemic has subsided.

Anderson Kirby recently had the opportunity to read the book to a third-grade class in Raleigh via Zoom.

“The students understood the message and asked interesting questions," said Anderson Kirby. “They talked about how they related to Henrietta and opened up about the difficult changes in their own routines over the past year. Without the book as a jumping off point, I don't think they would have discussed their personal experiences so openly. Kids can be quite resilient when given support."

This article was originally published in Inside Duke Health (requires Duke login) and was republished with permission.