The motivation behind a child’s artistic creations can be as unique as the kid who created it, but there are also some general psychological themes that children’s artwork can convey. This information will help parents or teachers decipher some of the hidden meaning that may exist in a child’s drawings, whether for use through art therapy or in everyday life.
Before proceeding we must caution parents that interpreting a child’s drawings is an art, not an exact science. Psychoanalytical interpretations are just that – INTERPRETATIONS. Sometimes they can provide useful information, other times they are of no value at all and may not reflect the child’s core feelings to any degree. We would caution parents about trying to read too much into a child’s creations and warn against trying to search too hard for meaning that may not be there. Sometimes a monster is just a monster, a weapon is just something they saw on TV, and a stick figure is drawn because they aren’t the greatest of artists.
Stick figures & bubble people
Psychologists have found that stick figures E are sometimes indications of distress, (Hammer, 1980) whereas bubble figures can indicate power or a dominant figure. This is particularly true when you see both types in the same drawing, indicating that something drove a child to differentiate and draw some people one way and others another. (See figure 1)
Feelings of helplessness or a lack of control in a child’s art expressions
Human beings drawn with no extremities, such as arms or legs, are often associated with feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. (Hammer, 1980i see figure 2) Big figures towering over small ones or a child drawn disproportionately small to their environment can also be a way of expressing helplessness or feelings of no control. (See figure 3) Paradoxically, a child who draws themselves towering over others can indicate the same thing: the child is drawing a fantasy about what they seek and desire, putting themselves in a position of control when they feel as though they have none in their life.
Additional conversation points for parents:
- I see you’ve drawn this picture much bigger than the rest. Is that for a reason?
- How interesting that this person has no arms. What is it that made them that way?
Fear-related imagery in art
Monsters or other menacing creatures are often fear-related, as are pictures drawn exclusively in darker color tones. Children may draw such scenes as a way of expressing fear-related struggles in their life. These fears can be anything from concerns about imaginary closet monsters to very real fears over recent trauma that was witnessed/experienced in their lives.
Additional conversation points for parents:
- Is this a scary monster or a friendly monster?
- What is the monster’s purpose? What doe she do? How does he scare people?
- Interesting colors. What made you choose these particular shades?
Violent imagery in children’s artwork
Violent imagery commonly emerges in the artwork of children who have been exposed to violence. This could be violence in the home, in their community, or in other cases, simply violence they’ve seen on TV. Violence directed at another specific person may be anger-related, and could be a cause for concern. This is especially true when children draw themselves as the aggressor.
Inappropriate effect in a child’s artwork
A child may draw scenes that depict what psychologist’s refer to as “inappropriate effect,” which is a fancy way of saying that the emotional expression or reaction of characters is inappropriate for the scene. For example, a child may draw a smile on the face of someone being shot by a gun, or perhaps an aggressor who is laughing. (See figure 4)
Whenever you encounter inappropriate effect in a child’s artwork, it provides insight into how they might be struggling to understand or process a particular event. Sometimes inappropriate effect may be a child’s attempt to deny painful or scary feelings. By drawing the dying gunshot victim as smiling, it can be a way of avoiding the painful reality. In many other situations, however, it’s a case of a child struggling to interpret what happened, and let’s you know there are things you still need to talk about. For example, when a child draws an aggressor as smiling or laughing, he or she is telling you they perceive the aggressor as sadistically enjoying the violence. This is probably not correct, and is an unhealthy view to adopt. Children often s assume that adults always ask act with purposeful intent and with full awareness of the consequences, which often leads to such incorrect interpretations. So you might want to talk about how people sometimes make mistakes and do thing sthey shouldn’t, but that they may come to regret it later. People get scared or angry and they lash out, and some do terrible things because they are angry, not because they think it’s fun to be evil.
Adults must also be cautious not to lend their own judgment about what reactions are “appropriate.” For example, those working with children who have experienced molestation might erroneously interpret a smiling child as an “inappropriate effect.” Yet it may not be. Kids are capable of experiencing genital pleasure just like adults, and studies indicate that it’s quite common for such contact to feel good to a child. Interpreting this reaction as “inappropriate” will send you down the wrong path, and you’ll harm the child in the process by suggesting it’s wrong to experience such emotions. So always be sure to ask non-judgmental questions about the emotional depictions in the drawing before you get too carried away with the idea that the emotions are wrong.
Additional conversation points for parents:
- I see this person is smiling. What is he happy about?
- Do you think most people would feel this way if they were in this situation?
- Does he/she like what is going on?
A child may draw a picture of a gun shooting by itself, or knives without anyone wielding them. Inanimate aggressors can simply be a sign of preoccupation; a child who witnessed a shooting may be preoccupied with the weapon used. Or it might be a sign that the child is struggling to accept the actual aggressor, either because they don’t want to accept it or because these thoughts are too painful. This is common in situations of domestic violence or when acts of violence involve someone close to them.
Sometimes a child may draw a picture with one item taking up the whole page and towering over the other subjects. This is often a sign of preoccupation with something. For example, a child who draws an oversize weapon that takes up the majority of the page may be consumed with thoughts and/or fears about that particular object.
Another common theme is anthromorphizing, or assigning human qualities to non-human objects. For example, a child might draw a tornado with an angry expression. It’s especially common for younger children to assign inanimate objects with consciousness, which means they also may imagine a tornado with the intent to do them harm…something that needs to be addressed in post-disaster comforting.
Symbols of hope in a child’s artwork
Children who draw things such as sunshine, flowers, children at play, smiling adults, churches or religious symbols, hearts, or other typically positive images alongside or in combination with violent imagery are often expressing feelings of hope. This is a good sign. It means they are focused on a positive outcome amidst the violence or chaos around them.
These symbols of hope can also directly correlate to a child’s optimism or overall welfare. Among one study, it was found that 56% of children in violent neighborhoods drew no hopeful elements, 39% had one to three, and among those who drew such symbols, the average number was two. When researchers compared the kids’ pictures to their history of exposure to violence, it was found that as the number of violent incidents increased, the level of hopeful elements in their artwork decreased. (Lewis, Osofsky & Moore, 1997) Although once again, we would caution parents not to read too much into this; some children with a perfectly healthy outlook may simply forget or choose not to draw such things.
These symbols can also provide insights about what children draw comfort from: Hearts can be symbols of love from family or others, sunshine or flowers can be symbols of beauty and a trust in the inherent goodness of the world around them, crosses can be a sign they find solace in faith. Drawing wings on themselves is indicative of a desire and/or motivation to escape to a better place.
Using a Child’s Artwork for Insight on Treatment
1) Always look for emotional expression within a child’s drawings. For example, a child who draws a picture of an aggressor shooting someone who has a smile or a frown on their face is giving you insight about how they interpret the motivations of the aggressor. In the case of a smiling shooter, they interpret this person to be happy about the violence or enjoying it; a (generally) false interpretation that children commonly exhibit which needs to be addressed. So you might be sure to emphasize in future discussions how people can do things they later regret, or about how people don’t always think their actions through, or other concepts that would address this social pain.
2) Don’t get too carried away with interpretations. The purpose is to gain possible insight about what a child mayor may not be feeling. It’s not about reading minds. Art expression is a crude tool; it provides insights but not definitive answers. Use it appropriately.
3) Talk, but don’t pressure. As an expressive activity, art can open up the door for communication. Engage a child in as much conversation as they are comfortable with without pressuring them to open up.