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When Kids Draw Gory, Disturbing, Explicit or Alarming Pictures

Parents expect their kids to come home with drawings of rainbows or smiley faces or family members or other happy scenes that can be hung on the kitchen wall. But what should a parent or teacher do when a child uses their artistic discretion to create scenes that are gory, violent or disturbing? This information is written as a guide for adults who stumble upon a child’s disturbing drawings, as well as for parents of stressed or traumatized children who have disturbing imagery emerge through art therapy.

Why Children Draw Disturbing Pictures

Some disturbing artwork may simply be the product of a child’s creativity. After all, children are exposed to television programming that is filled with crime shows, aliens, monsters, zombies, blood, death, and a variety of other gory or violent images. So just because your child draws a picture of a person with knife wounds or blood coming out, it doesn’t mean that they are deeply disturbed or a budding psychopath. He or she may simply be creative or have a flair for horror movies.

Other times, just like news or talk shows, kids will do something specifically for the shock value. They’re not disturbed inside or struggling with any stress-related issues, they’re just trying to be creatively provocative. They want to rile up their caretakers or get a reaction out of others, in the same way they might say something provocative to get a reaction from you. In fact, classroom studies show that when kids are given creative license, they often gravitate towards issues with shock value. (Tobin, 1997)

Artwork by kids that is stress or trauma related

Violent or disturbing artwork can also emerge when children witness acts of violence in their homes or community, or when they are under significant stress or duress in their personal lives. Since artwork is an expressive act, disturbing scenes in a child’s picture can be a symptom of more serious underlying problems. One of the primary ways that young children communicate frightening or confusing experiences is through the process of drawing pictures. (Hammer, 1980) This information will help you determine whether a child’s doodles are just the result of an active and creative mind or whether it’s something to be more concerned about.

When to be concerned about a child’s artwork

Although there are no surefire tests we could give you to distinguish worrisome artwork from the harmless kind, here are some things that will help you decide whether it’s necessary to investigate further:

1. Realisticness: Does the disturbing imagery convey actual people that the child knows from real life? If so, this could mean the inspiration for this imagery hits close to home, and might be something you need to inquire about further. If it contains more fantasy elements, it likely is.

2. Age of the child: Disturbing artwork by older elementary school kids and teens is a lot more common simply as an art expression, whereas such provocative imagery by younger kids is far less common. Just about every teen may have fantasies about blowing up their school, but this doesn’t mean they are psychopaths who would seriously consider it.

3. Setting of the picture: What is the setting of the picture? What other elements is it surrounded by? Depictions of violent acts inside a school or a child’s home are more worrisome than a picture drawn in another setting, since they suggest a greater degree of psychological intimacy.

4. Ask them! The best way to decipher whether there is cause for concern is to ask kids, in a non-judgmental way, about their inspiration for the work. The next session will cover this.

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