Children’s drawings can function as a fascinating window into how kids perceive and represent their world. They are also helpful tools for therapists, because children sometimes find it easier to communicate with imagery rather than words. But are children’s drawings — by themselves — proof that something is wrong? Research strongly indicates otherwise.
Imagine a stack of children’s artwork, pictures produced by 6-year-olds who have been asked to “make a family drawing.” No further instructions given.
As you sort through them, you see that many kids created colorful, detailed, cheerful images. Family members are depicted as smiling or pleasant, and they are placed front and center – not crowded at the edge of the page. Bodies are drawn in rough proportion, and different people are given individual characteristics. Just looking these drawings gives you the impression of belonging, pride, or happiness.
But a few kids created sketches that seem emotionally bleak, disturbed, distant, or lonely. For instance, in some cases, the drawings are colorless, even though the children had access to colored crayons or pens. The figures look unhappy, or drawn in strangely exaggerated ways. Family members may be separated by barriers, or otherwise depicted as far apart from each other. Certain people in the family may be entirely missing from the image.
In other cases, the artist takes care to represent everyone in the family, but individual family members are scrunched together in the corner of the frame — stashed away on the periphery, rather than showcased as the primary subjects of the drawing.
And in some of the images, you might see a lack of completeness and individuality. Human figures are missing arms or hands or faces, as well as any features that might differentiate one family member from another.
What do these family portraits tell us about the children who drew them? What do they tell us about children’s domestic lives, their intimate relationships? Could a somber or disturbed-looking family drawing be a warning sign – an indicator that a child is experiencing stress or difficulty at home?
Interpreting children’s family drawings
Across a variety of studies – conducted in multiple cultures – researchers have found that family drawings can indeed tell us something. The images tend to correlate with children’s perceptions of family life. But before we get worried about oddities in our children’s artwork, we need to keep in mind:
Drawings aren’t proof that something is wrong. They can be hints or clues that something might be wrong.
After all, kids vary considerably in their drawing skills.
If a child draws human figures without distinguishing features, or crowds everyone together in a small portion of the available space, does this mean the child is stressed or unhappy about something? Or does it simply mean the child hasn’t yet mastered the conventions of representational drawing?
Then there’s the role of culture.
In Western societies, psychologists expect 6-year-olds to depict human faces with eyes and mouths. If family life is secure and happy, they expect to see family members smiling, with parents standing alongside their children. Yet among the Nso farmers of Cameroon, it’s common for kids to draw people without smiles, or even mouths. And it isn’t unusual for them to draw themselves standing alongside someone other than a parent.
Why do Nso children produce such drawings? It’s not because kids are insecure or maladjusted. On the contrary, Nso children are depicting family life in ways that make sense for their culture. From an early age, Nso kids are taught to keep their emotions under control, and maintain neutral facial expression. So in this culture, depicting family members with smiling faces would be odd or abnormal.
In addition, Nso children grow up with multiple caretakers, including parents and non-relatives. In effect, their concept of family is more inclusive, and their images reflect this. They are more likely than Western children to draw themselves standing near a non-parent, because they are more likely to view non-parents as important attachment figures (Gernhardt et al 2013).
So when anyone tries to analyze the meaning of a family drawing, they need to factor in developmental skills, cultural norms, and childrearing practices. And it’s also crucial to recognize all the other stuff that can influence a child’s graphical depictions, such as imagery in the popular media, and personal quirks or passing moods. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a drawing is just a drawing. Psychologists shouldn’t – and don’t – jump to conclusions based on children’s drawings. To really understand what’s going on in a child’s world, they additional pieces of information.
Still, as I’ve said, there is evidence that family drawings can be reflective of a child’s real-world experiences. What is this evidence like? Here’s an example.
In a long-term study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Bharathi Zvara and her colleagues followed more than 900 children from infancy through the first grade. Investigators visited the children eight times over the years, observing kids in their homes, as they interacted with their mothers. When children were challenged to solve difficult tasks, researchers recorded how mothers behaved. Did mothers maintain positive emotions with their children? Did they show the sensitivity to keep kids engaged and stimulated, without attempting to take over or control the task? Or were the mothers intrusive, bossy, negative, or harsh?
In addition, Zvara’s team rated the overall family environment for something called “household chaos,” a measure that takes into account how much disorganization and instability there is. If a home featured lots of noise, clutter and crowding, and relatively little structure, it was rated as highly disorganized. If a family experienced frequent moves, changes in family composition, and inconsistent routines, it was scored as being very unstable.
The endpoint of the study was reached when kids were 6 years old, and researchers asked them to draw pictures of their families. The team analyzed the drawings, looking for these indicators.
- A lack of family pride. Were the faces missing smiles, or other markers of pleasantness? Did children fail to use vibrant colors? Were family members presented in a way that made them seem unimportant, or disconnected from each other?
- Vulnerability. Did the children’s self-depictions look threatened in some way, because of size distortions, the placement of figures, or strangely exaggerated body parts?
- Emotional distance. Were family members depicted with negative emotions? Were mothers and children separated from each other?
- Tension/anger. Did the drawing itself show signs of being produced in anger? Were the figures drawn carelessly, or without color or detail?
- Global pathology. What there an overall impression of negativity, based on factors like organization, details, mood, background?
Results: Children’s drawings are linked – somewhat – with family functioning
Researchers didn’t find that a child’s depiction of family life was a one-on-one match with trouble at home. Rather, they discovered modest, but statistically significant, links between children’s drawings and several key environmental factors.
- Kids tended to produce happier, more supportive-looking family images if they had warm, sensitive, child-centered, stimulating caregivers.
- Kids’ images were more likely to depict negativity, alienation, and emotional distancing when their caregivers were harsh, controlling, or disapproving.
- Imagery also depended on the disorganization levels of the household. The more noise, clutter, and crowding – and the less structure – the greater the chance that a child’s family drawing would display the negative characteristics listed above.
It’s easy to see how the quality of parenting might affect a child’s depiction of family relationships. But why should household chaos – specifically disorganization — matter?
The answer seems to be that chaos can frazzle nerves, erode patience, fritter attention, and make it difficult for parents and kids to communicate in positive, sensitive ways. In fact, when the researchers controlled for maternal parenting behaviors, the link between household chaos and children’s drawings vanished.
So what we’re left with is evidence that children’s family drawings are correlated with the type of parenting they receive, but the correlation is small. If a child creates a family drawing that seems lacking in warmth and attention to detail – if the drawing seems a bit odd, or haphazard, or emotionally negative – this most definitively doesn’t mean that the family is dysfunctional, or that the parents are lacking in warmth, sensitivity, and responsiveness. Instead, it’s a small, but potentially helpful, clue. Kids who produce these drawings are somewhat more likely to experience negative or harsh parenting.
What about other outcomes? Do children’s drawings reflect attachment security? Traumatic experiences? Serious emotional or behavior problems?
Researchers report that the family drawing test (often called the “Family Drawing Paradigm”, or FDP) has been “increasingly used to assess attachment” in children by clinical and developmental professionals (Pace, Muzi, and Vizzino 2022). It’s viewed as a helpful tool when verbal communication with kids is difficult. It also has the advantage of minimizing distress, relative to the so-called “gold standard” of attachment tests – the Strange Situation Paradigm. (As I explain elsewhere, the Strange Situation Paradigm requires kids to spend time with a stranger while their parents are absent, and this can be stressful for participants.)
But these characteristics don’t ensure that the family drawing test is an accurate indicator of attachment security, and in fact the limited evidence suggests that it isn’t very accurate at all. For example, in a study testing 41 children (ages 5 to 8), researchers found that FDP results weren’t aligned with the results of a Strange Situation test (Pace et al 2020). Thus, as Cecilia Serena Pace and her colleagues note, we can’t assume that the Family Drawing test is as “trustable” as other, well-established procedures for assessing attachment (Pace, Muzi, and Vizzino 2022).
Similarly, we can’t assume that children’s drawings are — by themselves — proof of traumatic experiences or mistreatment. When Brian Allen and Chriscelyn Tussey reviewed the published literature on this subject in 2012, they concluded the research was too inconsistent, and compromised by “serious methodological flaws.”
As of 2023, I’ve looked for relevant studies published after 2012, and I’ve found research indicating self-portraits of victimized individuals often follow certain patterns, and these patterns can be used to help identify people who have suffered. But the correlation isn’t perfect, and drawings alone should not be taken as proof.
And when it comes to detecting serious emotional or behavior problems, family drawings are somewhat useful, but far from diagnostic.
For instance, researchers have found correlations between a child’s family representations and “callous unemotional traits,” which are characterized by low empathy, low concern for others, and shallow emotions. Kids who diagnosed with these traits are more likely to create aberrant family drawings for their age. Moreover, when children’s symptoms improve, their family drawings have changed for the better (Kloft et al 2017). Yet these correlations are very modest (Rehder et al 2021). They don’t allow us to work backward, from a drawing, and conclude that a child-artist has callous unemotional traits.
But what if a child draws something that is really creepy, scary, violent, or inappropriate?
I think the takeaway is to apply common sense, and realize that it’s normal for kids to explore all sorts of themes in their drawings — including themes that we find unsettling. That doesn’t mean that children’s drawings are irrelevant as clues. But we need to take the context into account, and remember that children may include disturbing elements for many reasons — not the least of which is exposure to violent or frightening media. When kids draw pictures that look like scenes from horror movies, it is often a reflection of their exposure to that type of content.
In other words, children’s artwork can convey important emotional experiences and even trauma, but the same is true of other behavior, including speech and social interactions. There isn’t anything magically diagnostic about children’s drawings. They are simply of one several interesting, and potentially revealing, ways that kids express themselves. When the same, disturbing elements keep popping up — or you see a sudden, worrying change — this is good reason to dig deeper. But remember: A single drawing isn’t strong evidence that something is wrong. At best, it’s a modest indicator that something might be wrong. Talk with your child, and consult your pediatrician for advice.
What can parents do to help their children deal with conflicts and negative emotions? Studies suggest that kids experience better outcomes when we actively coach them. For more information, see my article, “Emotion coaching: Helping kids cope with negative feelings.”