September 26, 2023

children's colorful, cheerful drawing of a child walking in nature, with a baloon, while holding adult's hand

Kids’s drawings can operate as a captivating window into how children understand and symbolize their world. They’re additionally useful instruments for therapists, as a result of youngsters typically discover it simpler to speak with imagery fairly than phrases. However can youngsters’s drawings — by themselves — operate as reliable proof that one thing is flawed? Analysis strongly signifies in any other case.

Think about a stack of kids’s paintings, photos produced by 6-year-olds who’ve been requested to “make a household drawing.” No additional directions given.

As you type via them, you see that many children created colourful, detailed, cheerful pictures. Relations are depicted as smiling or nice, and they’re positioned entrance and middle – not crowded on the fringe of the web page. Our bodies are drawn in tough proportion, and totally different individuals are given particular person traits. Simply wanting these drawings provides you the impression of belonging, delight, or happiness.

However a number of children created sketches that appear emotionally bleak, disturbed, distant, or lonely. For example, in some instances, the drawings are colorless, although the youngsters had entry to coloured crayons or pens. The figures look sad, or drawn in surprisingly exaggerated methods. Relations could also be separated by limitations, or in any other case depicted as far other than one another. Sure individuals within the household could also be totally lacking from the picture.

In different instances, the artist takes care to symbolize everybody within the household, however particular person members of the family are scrunched collectively within the nook of the body — stashed away on the periphery, fairly than showcased as the first topics of the drawing.

And in a few of the pictures, you may see an absence of completeness and individuality. Human figures are lacking arms or fingers or faces, in addition to any options that may differentiate one member of the family from one other.

What do these household portraits inform us in regards to the youngsters who drew them? What do they inform us about youngsters’s home lives, their intimate relationships? May a somber or disturbed-looking household drawing be a warning signal – an indicator {that a} baby is experiencing stress or issue at house?

Deciphering youngsters’s household drawings

Throughout quite a lot of research – performed in a number of cultures – researchers have discovered that household drawings can certainly inform us one thing. The pictures are likely to correlate with youngsters’s perceptions of household life. However earlier than we get anxious about oddities in our youngsters’s paintings, we want to remember:

Drawings aren’t proof that one thing is flawed. They are often hints or clues that one thing may be flawed.

In spite of everything, children fluctuate significantly of their drawing expertise.

If a baby attracts human figures with out distinguishing options, or crowds everybody collectively in a small portion of the out there area, does this imply the kid is careworn or sad about one thing? Or does it merely imply the kid hasn’t but mastered the conventions of representational drawing?

Then there’s the position of tradition.

In Western societies, psychologists count on 6-year-olds to depict human faces with eyes and mouths. If household life is safe and joyful, they count on to see members of the family smiling, with dad and mom standing alongside their youngsters. But among the many Nso farmers of Cameroon, it’s frequent for teenagers to attract individuals with out smiles, and even mouths. And it isn’t uncommon for them to attract themselves standing alongside somebody different than a dad or mum.

Why do Nso youngsters produce such drawings? It’s not as a result of children are insecure or maladjusted. Quite the opposite, Nso youngsters are depicting household life in ways in which make sense for his or her tradition. From an early age, Nso children are taught to maintain their feelings beneath management, and preserve impartial facial features. So on this tradition, depicting members of the family with smiling faces could be odd or irregular.

As well as, Nso youngsters develop up with a number of caretakers, together with dad and mom and non-relatives. In impact, their idea of household is extra inclusive, and their pictures mirror this. They’re extra seemingly than Western youngsters to attract themselves standing close to a non-parent, as a result of they’re extra more likely to view non-parents as essential attachment figures (Gernhardt et al 2013).

So when anybody tries to research the that means of a household drawing, they should consider developmental expertise, cultural norms, and childrearing practices. And it’s additionally essential to acknowledge all the opposite stuff that may affect a baby’s graphical depictions, comparable to imagery within the widespread media, and private quirks or passing moods. To paraphrase Freud, typically a drawing is only a drawing. Psychologists shouldn’t – and don’t – soar to conclusions primarily based on youngsters’s drawings. To actually perceive what’s happening in a baby’s world, they extra items of data.

Nonetheless, as I’ve stated, there may be proof that household drawings could be reflective of a kid’s real-world experiences. What is that this proof like? Right here’s an instance.

In a long-term research performed by researchers on the College of North Carolina, Bharathi Zvara and her colleagues adopted greater than 900 youngsters from infancy via the primary grade. Investigators visited the youngsters eight instances through the years, observing children of their properties, as they interacted with their moms. When youngsters had been challenged to resolve tough duties, researchers recorded how moms behaved. Did moms preserve optimistic feelings with their youngsters? Did they present the sensitivity to maintain children engaged and stimulated, with out trying to take over or management the duty? Or had been the moms intrusive, bossy, damaging, or harsh?

As well as, Zvara’s staff rated the general household setting for one thing known as “family chaos,” a measure that takes under consideration how a lot disorganization and instability there may be. If a house featured plenty of noise, muddle and crowding, and comparatively little construction, it was rated as extremely disorganized. If a household skilled frequent strikes, modifications in household composition, and inconsistent routines, it was scored as being very unstable.

The endpoint of the research was reached when children had been 6 years previous, and researchers requested them to attract photos of their households. The staff analyzed the drawings, in search of these indicators.

  • An absence of household delight. Have been the faces lacking smiles, or different markers of pleasantness? Did youngsters fail to make use of vibrant colours? Have been members of the family offered in a manner that made them appear unimportant, or disconnected from one another?
  • Vulnerability. Did the youngsters’s self-depictions look threatened in a roundabout way, due to dimension distortions, the location of figures, or surprisingly exaggerated physique components?
  • Emotional distance. Have been members of the family depicted with damaging feelings? Have been moms and youngsters separated from one another?
  • Pressure/anger. Did the drawing itself present indicators of being produced in anger? Have been the figures drawn carelessly, or with out coloration or element?
  • International pathology. What there an general impression of negativity, primarily based on components like group, particulars, temper, background?

Outcomes: Kids’s drawings are linked – considerably – with household functioning  

Researchers didn’t discover {that a} baby’s depiction of household life was a one-on-one match with hassle at house. Fairly, they found modest, however statistically important, hyperlinks between youngsters’s drawings and a number of other key environmental components.

  • Children tended to provide happier, extra supportive-looking household pictures if they’d heat, delicate, child-centered, stimulating caregivers.
  • Children’ pictures had been extra more likely to depict negativity, alienation, and emotional distancing when their caregivers had been harsh, controlling, or disapproving.
  • Imagery additionally trusted the disorganization ranges of the family. The extra noise, muddle, and crowding – and the much less construction – the better the possibility {that a} baby’s household drawing would show the damaging traits listed above.

It’s simple to see how the standard of parenting may have an effect on a baby’s depiction of household relationships. However why ought to family chaos – particularly disorganization — matter?

The reply appears to be that chaos can frazzle nerves, erode persistence, fritter consideration, and make it tough for fogeys and youngsters to speak in optimistic, delicate methods. The truth is, when the researchers managed for maternal parenting behaviors, the hyperlink between family chaos and youngsters’s drawings vanished.

So what we’re left with is proof that youngsters’s household drawings are correlated with the kind of parenting they obtain, however the correlation is small. If a baby creates a household drawing that appears missing in heat and a focus to element – if the drawing appears a bit odd, or haphazard, or emotionally damaging – this most definitively doesn’t imply that the household is dysfunctional, or that the dad and mom are missing in heat, sensitivity, and responsiveness. As an alternative, it’s a small, however probably useful, clue. Children who produce these drawings are considerably extra more likely to expertise damaging or harsh parenting.

What about different outcomes? Do youngsters’s drawings mirror attachment safety? Traumatic experiences? Severe emotional or habits issues?

Researchers report that the household drawing check (typically known as the “Household Drawing Paradigm”, or FDP) has been “more and more used to evaluate attachment” in youngsters by scientific and developmental professionals (Tempo, Muzi, and Vizzino 2022). It’s considered as a useful instrument when verbal communication with children is tough. It additionally has the benefit of minimizing misery, relative to the so-called “gold normal” of attachment exams – the Unusual Scenario Paradigm. (As I clarify elsewhere, the Unusual Scenario Paradigm requires children to spend time with a stranger whereas their dad and mom are absent, and this may be annoying for members.)

However these traits don’t make sure that the household drawing check is an correct indicator of attachment safety, and actually the restricted proof means that it isn’t very correct in any respect. For instance, in a research testing 41 youngsters (ages 5 to eight), researchers discovered that FDP outcomes weren’t aligned with the outcomes of a Unusual Scenario check (Tempo et al 2020). Thus, as Cecilia Serena Pace and her colleagues be aware, we will’t assume that the Household Drawing check is as “trustable” as different, well-established procedures for assessing attachment (Tempo, Muzi, and Vizzino 2022).

Equally, we will’t assume that youngsters’s drawings are — by themselves — proof of traumatic experiences or mistreatment. When Brian Allen and Chriscelyn Tussey reviewed the printed literature on this topic in 2012, they concluded the analysis was too inconsistent, and compromised by “critical methodological flaws.”

As of 2023, I’ve regarded for related research printed after 2012, and I’ve discovered research indicating self-portraits of victimized people typically observe sure patterns, and these patterns can be utilized to assist determine individuals who have suffered. However the correlation isn’t excellent, and drawings alone shouldn’t be taken as proof.

And on the subject of detecting critical emotional or habits issues, household drawings are considerably helpful, however removed from diagnostic.

For example, researchers have discovered correlations between a baby’s household representations and “callous unemotional traits,” that are characterised by low empathy, low concern for others, and shallow feelings.  Children who recognized with these traits usually tend to create aberrant household drawings for his or her age. Furthermore, when youngsters’s signs enhance, their household drawings have modified for the higher (Kloft et al 2017). But these correlations are very modest (Rehder et al 2021). They don’t permit us to work backward, from a drawing, and conclude {that a} child-artist has callous unemotional traits.

However what if a baby attracts one thing that’s actually creepy, scary, violent, or inappropriate?

I believe the takeaway is to use frequent sense, and understand that it’s regular for teenagers to discover all types of themes of their drawings — together with themes that we discover unsettling. That doesn’t imply that youngsters’s drawings are irrelevant as clues. However we have to take the context under consideration, and keep in mind that youngsters might embody disturbing components for a lot of causes — not the least of which is publicity to violent or horrifying media. When children draw photos that appear like scenes from horror motion pictures, it’s typically a mirrored image of their publicity to that sort of content material.

In different phrases, youngsters’s paintings can convey essential emotional experiences and even trauma, however the identical is true of different habits, together with speech and social interactions. There isn’t something magically diagnostic about youngsters’s drawings. They’re merely of 1 a number of attention-grabbing, and probably revealing, ways in which children categorical themselves. When the identical, disturbing components maintain popping up — otherwise you see a sudden, worrying change — that is good cause to dig deeper. However keep in mind: A single drawing isn’t sturdy proof that one thing is flawed. At greatest, it’s a modest indicator that one thing may be flawed. Speak together with your baby, and seek the advice of your pediatrician for recommendation.

Extra studying

What can dad and mom do to assist their youngsters cope with conflicts and damaging feelings? Research recommend that children expertise higher outcomes once we actively coach them. For extra info, see my article, “Emotion teaching: Serving to children deal with damaging emotions.”

References: Kids’s drawings

Be aware: The summary and full quotation of Allen and Tussey’s evaluation could be discovered by following the hyperlink above.

Behrens KY and Kaplan N. 2011. Japanese youngsters’s household drawings and their hyperlink to attachment. Connect Hum Dev. 13(5):437-50.

Gernhardt A, Rübeling H, and Keller H. 2013. “That is my household”: Variations in youngsters’s household drawings throughout cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology  44(7): 1166–1183.

Kloft L, Hawes D, Moul C, Sultan S, and Dadds M. 2017. Household Drawings earlier than and after Therapy for Baby Conduct Issues: Fluidity of Household Dysfunction. J Baby Fam Stud. 26(12):3476-3489.

Tempo CS, Guerriero V, Zavattini GC. 2020. Kids’s attachment representations: A pilot research evaluating household drawing with narrative and behavioral assessments in adopted and neighborhood youngsters. Arts Psychother. 67:101612.

Tempo CS, Muzi S, and Vizzino F. 2022. Household drawing for assessing attachment in youngsters: Weaknesses and strengths. Entrance Psychol. 13:980129.

Rehder PD, Mills-Koonce WR, Wagner NJ, Zvara B, Willoughby MT. 2021. Attachment high quality assessed from youngsters’s household drawings hyperlinks to baby conduct issues and callous-unemotional behaviors. Connect Hum Dev. 23(3):239-256.

Wagner NJ, Mills-Koonce WR, Willoughby MT, Zvara B, Cox MJ; Household Life Mission Key Investigators. 2015. Parenting and youngsters’s representations of household predict disruptive and callous-unemotional behaviors. Dev Psychol. 51(7):935-48.

Zvara BJ, Mills-Koonce WR, Garrett-Peters P, Wagner NJ, Vernon-Feagans L, Cox M; Household Life Mission Key Contributors. 2014. The mediating position of parenting within the associations between family chaos and youngsters’s representations of household dysfunction. Connect Hum Dev. 16(6):633-55.

Childlike drawing of cheerful scene, with balloon and animals, by Strekalova / istock