What Can We Learn from Children’s Drawings?

Over the years, psychologists have thought that the way children draw could give insight into their intelligence, their personality and their emotional adjustment. Psychological assessment of young children is very difficult as they are often unable to talk about things that have happened to them or to understand their feelings. So the idea that drawing could be used to tap into a child’s thoughts and feelings without him or her having to articulate them is an attractive one. But how useful are drawings in telling us these things?

Can drawings tell us how clever children are?

The early part of the 20th Century saw the first attempts at using children’s drawings to meaningfully analyse their development. In 1927, the first workable drawing-based intelligence test was created: Florence Goodenough’s (1927) ‘Draw a Man’ test.  This used children’s drawings of people to assign them a ‘mental-age.’ Although this was an important attempt at a non-verbal intelligence test for children, it turned out that the ‘mental ages’ assigned did not match the actual ability of the children.  Many attempts to create more reliable drawing based intelligence tests have since been made, however, none were able to reliably predict children’s ability and so have fallen into disuse. So drawings cannot tell us how intelligent a child is likely to be but perhaps they can tell us what sort of person a child will turn out to be.

What do drawings tell us about children’s personalities?

In 1949, Karen Machover developed a drawing based test to assess a child’s ‘fundamental character’.  This became one of the most frequently used psychological tests despite being strongly criticised as being too heavily influenced by psychoanalysis. This is a problem because in most countries Freudian psychoanalytic principles are largely discredited by mainstream psychology. The ‘draw a person’ test sees meaning in every line; every mistake; everything the child rubs out. It fails to take into account the ways in which children typically draw or any technical difficulties they may have. This is problematic as children tend to add emphasis to different features as a result of their drawing ability rather than their ‘fundamental personality’. These types of personality test tended to see disorder where there was none. They did not take into account what children of that age would typically do, rather, they interpreted the drawings based on an adult conceptualisation of how they ‘should’ be. More recent reviews of the ‘draw a man’ test have found it to provide a fairly reliable overall impression of a child’s ‘emotional adjustment’ but nothing more. So drawings may not be able to tell us about their personality, but maybe they can tell us about their emotional states?

Children’s drawings and their mental health.

It has been suggested that children’s human figure drawings may shed light on how well adjusted the child is through ‘emotional indicators’, such as omission of body parts that are typically included, or inclusion of those that are not normally drawn. The size and shape of body parts and their spatial relationship to one another on the page were also thought to be important. For example, genitalia are not typically included in the drawings of western children and the inclusion of these have, in some cases, been found to be indicative of sexual abuse. However, this must be taken with extreme caution as it is not unusual for children, boys in particular, to go through a phase of extreme fascination with genitalia and at this stage may frequently draw them. It is easy to see how this and similar misinterpretations could come about from this type of assessment of mental health and the consequences could be disastrous. Thus using children’s drawings alone to assess psychological disorder is unlikely to be accurate or useful; it is more important to consider the child’s behaviour and other indicators of psychological distress. In spite of this, it is possible to draw some conclusions about a child’s thoughts and feelings from their drawings. Children have been found to make certain colour choices depending on how they feel about the subject of their picture. Favourite colours tend to be used for characters they like, primary colours for neutral characters and black for characters they dislike. Size can also indicate how a child feels about the subject of the picture. For example, they tend to draw ‘nice’ people large; neutral people middle-sized; and ‘nasty’ people small. Thus, children’s drawings may give an indication of how they feel about certain individuals or situations. However, even this should be taken with caution. Children tend to be simplistic in their thinking and do not necessarily have the same ideas of relative scales of ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ as an adult might. So, for example, a teacher who told them off yesterday might be considered ‘bad’ and so might the person they saw commit a robbery. Whilst the child may understand that one of these people is ‘more bad’ than the other, their drawings may not necessarily reflect this.

Problems with using drawing to assess personality and emotional adjustment/disorder

Children’s behaviour is often altered by the way in which a task is presented to them: how they perform will depend upon their own interpretation of the instructions. If we return to the example above about how ‘nice’ people are drawn bigger than ‘nasty’ ones, it has been found that this is only true when the people are drawn on separate pieces of paper. When children are asked to draw ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’ people on the same page; the ‘nasty’ person is drawn much bigger than the ‘nice’ one. The reversal of this effect really highlights how important it is for a therapist to know the exact circumstances under which a drawing was produced before assessing it. They must also know the exact instructions the child was given when asked to draw the picture; if children think a particular detail is important to the person who has asked them to produce the drawing, they will emphasise it in some way. It is easy to see how this might skew a therapist’s interpretation of the picture.
In a ‘draw a man/person’ type test misinterpretation is very likely; these tests are not an accurate measure of a child’s internal workings. They don’t allow for typical drawing styles nor for the technical problems young children encounter. For example, children below age 8 typically draw figures with disproportionally large heads. The ‘draw a man’ test would add significance to this, assuming it to mean something about the child’s mental state. In fact, all children tend towards this drawing style and it is thought likely to be for practical reasons (e.g. it’s difficult to fit all of the details into the face if it’s too small); or due to the lack of planning ability typical in children this young (e.g. if they start with the head they may forget to leave enough room for a proportionate body). In fact, it is known that children below the age of 7 are more concerned with symbolism that realism in their drawings; they don’t care if the person looks ‘real’ they are more concerned that you know that it’s meant to be a person. So the over-sized heads common in the drawings of young children are likely to be devices used to make absolutely clear that it is a person and not indicative of their feelings about the subject of the picture at all. Indeed, in an experimental study, children were asked to include specific details on the body; they invariably drew these details larger than any other feature. This shows that young children value the need for their pictures to be representative of what they are meant to be above and beyond any kind of emotional expression.

So can children’s drawings tell us anything useful at all?

It is important to consider that children are still developing and so fluctuations in their drawing styles may simply be part of their natural development. Close scrutiny of every detail cannot be used for analytic purposes and in fact, when a therapist or parent does this, they risk grossly misinterpreting the child’s mental state. It is very difficult to assess emotional disorder in very young children; they find it hard to talk about their feelings and often have very little insight into the reasons behind their behaviour. So drawing may provide a valuable insight into their feelings, in particular by examining their colour choices and the relative sizes of different characters. But it is very important to judge these with extreme caution to avoid attaching undue significance to unimportant details of the drawing, or making assumptions about the child’s intent. Therapists must be careful to avoid biasing the child’s drawing by the way in which they ask them to draw it. It is also important not only to scrutinise the drawing but to ask the child about it, for example, a 7 year old boy who draws large genitalia on all of the people in his picture may simply do so because he thinks this is funny. It would be a terrible thing if this was misinterpreted as a sign that he has been sexually abused. So, drawing for the purposes of psychological assessment should be used with extreme caution, if at all. The importance of talking to the child while they are drawing and after they have finished must be stressed. In short, drawing may be more useful as a therapeutic tool, helping children who have experienced trauma to understand and process what has happened to them, than as a tool for assessment.

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