Child Psychology: What Your Child’s Drawings Are Telling You
The poignant scene from ‘Taare Zameen Par’ would possibly be imprinted on the mind of every parent. Young Ishaan, agonized at being banished to boarding school, uses a simple flip book to demonstrate his feelings, each page in succession showing a drawing of his moving away from his family.
The movie was an eye opener for many parents who spoke to me later, wondering if a child’s drawings are usually so revealing. Do kids really speak through their drawings?
Yes, they do.
As a psychologist dealing with the upsets and problems of childhood, I have long been impressed with how well pictures provide a window through which one can observe a child’s innermost thoughts and feelings.
Why drawings reveal so much
Before children have mastered the use of spoken language, it is natural that the only form of expression they have are spontaneous images. But even after children start speaking, feelings that they are unable to put in words can often be expressed more easily through drawings and paintings.
For young children, pencil, brush and paper are the best means of conveying their fondest hopes and and most profound fears.
Figure 1 was drawn by an obese teenager with self esteem issues related to her appearance. All the people in her drawing – including herself – have been depicted with shapeless bodies.
Figure 2 drawn by the same child, a few months after she had been in counseling and was on a weight loss plan. The “thinner” drawing representing herself suggests how she was now seeing herself!
When children believe important elements are missing from their lives or feel deprived of love and attention; if they have failed, are angry or anxious, then these sentiments are most likely to be expressed – directly or in disguise – in the pictures they create.
Appreciating a child’s world through his drawings
Picture analysis allows even the busiest adult to assess children quickly but accurately, and to monitor their emotional health and social well-being over a period of time.
Here are some things you can watch out for in your child’s drawings:
1. Unusual content: Is there a sudden shift in the content of your child’s drawing? Monsters, guns, weapons, ‘ghosts’, or other such violent or threatening drawings, may indicate that the child is facing some inner turmoil
2. Use of color: Does your child use more dark colors like blacks and reds, or calmer colors like blues and pinks? A lot of black or red recurring in a child’s drawing may be a troublesome sign.
Black often is an indication of depression or feeling hopeless or restricted. Red may indicate anger or aggression. Blues and greens are usually calm colors. One artist who studied cancer victims’ artwork discovered that in the days immediately preceding their deaths, these children drew in black.
Figure 3 was done by a 9-year-old with juvenile diabetes. Darker colors like reds, browns and oranges are prominent in the drawing representing the intense anger the child was feeling with the restrictions diabetes had placed on her lifestyle.
Therapists are not ordinarily concerned if a child creates one drawing in a disturbing color, but a series of dark drawings, especially if the content too is disturbing, should be investigated further.
3. Depiction of family: Conflicts at home usually show up in family drawings. Watch how your child draws all members of the family. Who is the child relating to in the drawing? Is someone omitted from the picture? How does the child fit herself into the drawing?
Figure 4 is a 9-year-old’s drawing that shows her making sandcastles with her brother while Father and Mother played basketball separately. Since the task explicitly mentioned drawing her family doing something TOGETHER, her inability to do so hinted at a probable divide at home between “children” and “adults”.
Interestingly this family had presented a “close-knit” front in the counseling sessions. The drawing signaled to the therapist to explore the family dynamics more deeply.
Most often, any upsetting event currently in a child’s life usually shows up in the family drawing.
4. Self representation: Ask the child to draw the figure of a person and watch the quality of the drawing. Is the figure small or puny or too large? Is some area in the drawing heavily shaded? Does the drawing have teeth, weapons or other unusual content? All these are signs of insecurity and conflict. Person drawings are usually self representations and reveal how the child views himself or herself.
Figure 5 was done by a 14-year-old boy with behavior problems. Note the heavy and thick shading (anxiety), the elaborate clothing (immaturity), the hands behind the back (evasiveness) Perhaps the single most revealing factor in this drawing is its placement, close to the base of the paper – an indication of insecurity.
Using Drawings And Play To Bond With Your Child – A Few Guidelines
• Drawing together is one of the best ways to bond with your child. In fact, painting and coloring have a profoundly calming and relaxing effect on adults too! You can combine drawings with various other play materials such as clay.
• On a day that your child seems abnormally upset or quiet, ask him to draw. Since most children (especially younger tots) rarely tell you what worries them, their drawings may do the job! Alternately, also watch how the child is playing with dolls, guns and other toys. Check if their play is unusually aggressive or depressing.
• Always display your child’s drawings proudly on the fridge or cupboard door. NEVER tear a child’s drawing or criticize it. Remember they are not just painting, coloring or scribbling, but revealing their personality, thoughts and feelings.
• Scribbling on walls is the woe of every parent. Yet, such freedom is an outlet for the child’s creative expression. A good idea is to allocate ONE wall in the house (in the child’s room) as the SCRIBBLE WALL where your little one can create masterpieces in blissful abandon.
Although your child’s pictures do speak louder than words, parents need to remember that picture analysis is a study in itself. Therapists and psychologists require years of practice before they can master symbolic revelations from drawings.
Studying your child’s drawings may not make you an expert on drawing analysis, but it will hopefully help you understand your child a little better. In fact, drawings provide an invaluable and readily available two-way mirror through which you can observe and establish a connection with your child.
What your child will be able to draw at various ages:
- Scribble: 2-4 years
- Line: 4 years
- Descriptive Symbolism: 5-6 years: Drawing concepts, not ‘real’ figures. Drawings look alike (no differences between male/female)
- Representational drawings: 7-8 years: Resemble the world around them
- Visual Realism: 9-10 years: Drawings get factual and even self-critical!
© H’vovi Bhagwagar
H’vovi Bhagwagar is a Clinical Psychologist and Behaviour Consultant based in Mumbai, with a private practice where she sees clients at Andheri and Powai. Visit her website at www.hvovikesaath.com and contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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