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One simple activity that can be done in response to any troubling or traumatic event in a child’s life is to encourage kids to express their thoughts and emotions through drawing.

Instructions and Guidelines for Therapeutic Drawing with Kids

1. These exercises work best when children are provided with butcher paper or another oversized canvas to work with, since it allows them to express more thoughts and create a more elaborate scene than can be done with a single sheet of 8 1/2 by 11 paper. Ensuring children have a variety of drawing utensils in a variety of colors that are in good working condition also helps them express emotional tones in their drawings.

2. You should avoid giving children explicit instructions to draw a particular trauma or experience. Not only does this vastly increase the risk of false memories related to the trauma or even a false allegation of abuse, but such highly suggestive instructions tend to dampen the desired effect from this process. You’re more likely to get a child who draws what they think you want them to draw as opposed to what they themselves are feeling. The only time you should give children instructions to draw particular experiences are when a child has experienced a non-interpersonal trauma, such as a tornado, car accident, or earthquake. Even in these cases it should be utilized only after you try the more indirect route. If you ask a child to draw any event that happened recently, and they draw a playmate rather than the car crash last week that broke their arm, this is itself a result: it tells you they are probably not real focused on what happened, and are likely to be coping just fine.

The working you use in your instructions can have a profound impact on what you end up with. For example, when one group of children was asked to “draw a picture of your neighborhood,” only 9% drew acts of violence that they had witnessed. But when instructed to “draw a picture of what happens in your neighborhood,” over 60% did. (Lewis, Osofsky & Moore, 1997) It’s an illustration of how much adults can influence things by asking the right (or wrong) questions.

Instructions for Drawing Therapy Exercises

So without telling children what to draw, here are some open-ended instructions that can encourage children to express thoughts and emotions from their life. You can pick the one that seems to best fit within the circumstances you’re concerned about:

  • Draw a picture of what happens in your neighborhood
  • Draw something that happens in your home Draw a picture of your parents together
  • Draw something that happens in your school
  • Draw something you might do with mommy or daddy
  • Draw what people in your neighborhood or family are thinking about
  • Draw something that you experienced or did recently


Emotional-based drawing instructions:

  • Draw a picture of what makes you happy
  • Draw a picture of what makes you frightened
  • Draw something that makes you upset
  • Draw something that makes you angry


Indirect emotional-based drawing instructions
Indirect emotional instructions can work well when you feel that a child is putting up a false bravado or when you want to try and get inside their mind to uncover what they perceive about how others might feel:

  • Draw something that your friend might find scary
  • Draw something that is upsetting to mommy or Daddy
  • Draw something that bothers people in your neighborhood


Ask Kids to tell you a story about their artwork
Whenever you’re using artwork as an attempt to encourage emotional expression, you should always conclude the session by asking kids to tell you a story about their artwork. If you kids are young, you can have them dictate the story and then write (or type) it out for them. If your kids are proficient writers, you should have them write their own story.

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