What do youngsters’s drawings inform us about life at residence?

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

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

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

As you kind by way of them, you see that many children created colourful, detailed, cheerful photographs. 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 trying these drawings offers you the impression of belonging, delight, or happiness.

However just a few children created sketches that appear emotionally bleak, disturbed, distant, or lonely. As an illustration, in some instances, the drawings are colorless, despite the fact that the kids had entry to coloured crayons or pens. The figures look sad, or drawn in surprisingly exaggerated methods. Relations could also be separated by obstacles, or in any other case depicted as far other than one another. Sure folks within the household could also be solely lacking from the picture.

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

And in a number of the photographs, you would possibly see a scarcity 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 concerning the youngsters who drew them? What do they inform us about youngsters’s home lives, their intimate relationships? Might a somber or disturbed-looking household drawing be a warning signal – an indicator {that a} baby is experiencing stress or problem at residence?

Decoding youngsters’s household drawings

Throughout quite a lot of research – carried out 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 frightened about oddities in our kids’s paintings, we’d like to bear in mind:

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

In any case, children range significantly of their drawing abilities.

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 confused 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 function of tradition.

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

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 underneath management, and keep impartial facial features. So on this tradition, depicting relations 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 photographs replicate 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 vital attachment figures (Gernhardt et al 2013).

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

Nonetheless, as I’ve mentioned, there may be proof that household drawings might 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 carried out by researchers on the College of North Carolina, Bharathi Zvara and her colleagues adopted greater than 900 youngsters from infancy by way of the primary grade. Investigators visited the kids eight instances over time, observing children of their properties, as they interacted with their moms. When youngsters had been challenged to resolve troublesome duties, researchers recorded how moms behaved. Did moms keep 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 surroundings for one thing referred to 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, adjustments 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 outdated, and researchers requested them to attract footage of their households. The staff analyzed the drawings, on the lookout for these indicators.

  • An absence of household delight. Had been the faces lacking smiles, or different markers of pleasantness? Did youngsters fail to make use of vibrant colours? Had been relations offered in a manner that made them appear unimportant, or disconnected from one another?
  • Vulnerability. Did the kids’s self-depictions look threatened not directly, due to measurement distortions, the position of figures, or surprisingly exaggerated physique elements?
  • Emotional distance. Had been relations depicted with damaging feelings? Had been moms and kids separated from one another?
  • Pressure/anger. Did the drawing itself present indicators of being produced in anger? Had been the figures drawn carelessly, or with out coloration or element?
  • International pathology. What there an total impression of negativity, based mostly 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 bother at residence. Somewhat, they found modest, however statistically vital, hyperlinks between youngsters’s drawings and several other key environmental components.

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

It’s straightforward to see how the standard of parenting would possibly 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 troublesome for folks and youngsters to speak in optimistic, delicate methods. In truth, when the researchers managed for maternal parenting behaviors, the hyperlink between family chaos and kids’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 a substitute, 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 replicate attachment safety? Traumatic experiences? Critical emotional or habits issues?

Researchers report that the household drawing check (typically referred to 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 seen as a useful device when verbal communication with children is troublesome. It additionally has the benefit of minimizing misery, relative to the so-called “gold commonplace” of attachment assessments – the Unusual State of affairs Paradigm. (As I clarify elsewhere, the Unusual State of affairs Paradigm requires children to spend time with a stranger whereas their dad and mom are absent, and this may be aggravating for individuals.)

However these traits don’t make sure that the household drawing check is an correct indicator of attachment safety, and in reality 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 State of affairs check (Tempo et al 2020). Thus, as Cecilia Serena Pace and her colleagues observe, 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 “severe 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 good, and drawings alone shouldn’t be taken as proof.

And in terms of detecting severe emotional or habits issues, household drawings are considerably helpful, however removed from diagnostic.

As an illustration, 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 identified 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 enable 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 feel the takeaway is to use widespread sense, and understand that it’s regular for youths to discover all kinds 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 parts for a lot of causes — not the least of which is publicity to violent or scary media. When children draw footage that seem like scenes from horror films, it’s typically a mirrored image of their publicity to that sort of content material.

In different phrases, youngsters’s paintings can convey vital 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 fascinating, and probably revealing, ways in which children categorical themselves. When the identical, disturbing parts preserve 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 robust proof that one thing is flawed. At finest, it’s a modest indicator that one thing is perhaps 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 take care of 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 address damaging emotions.”


References: Kids’s drawings

Be aware: The summary and full quotation of Allen and Tussey’s evaluate might 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 Little one Conduct Issues: Fluidity of Household Dysfunction. J Little one 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 Challenge Key Investigators. 2015. Parenting and kids’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 Challenge Key Contributors. 2014. The mediating function of parenting within the associations between family chaos and kids’s representations of household dysfunction. Connect Hum Dev. 16(6):633-55.

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