Parenting

Your Kids May Not Be Able To Say If They're Having Trouble -- But They Can Draw It

12/15/2014 02:09pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017

Parents already know that their kids' artwork is an endless source of amusement (see here, here and here), but there could be more to those mini masterpieces, according to new research.

A study published in the Attachment and Human Development journal found that children's drawings are a window, so to speak, into the way they view their home life. As part of The Family Life Project, 962 participating 6- and 7-year-old kids were asked to draw their families. Since the researchers had been making regular visits to the participating families' homes, they were able to make one big connection: If a child is experiencing household disorganization and chaos, you'll be able to see it in their family drawings.

"It's interesting because if you want to look at the way kids see themselves in relation to their family, they're not good at talking about it yet," Roger Mills-Koonce, Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and one of the researchers involved in the study, told The Huffington Post. "At the same time, they've aged out of where you can just look at how they behave, because they've learned how to control their behaviors really well."

Children in "high-functioning" homes depicted all of their family members and differentiated each one appropriately -- the parents were bigger than the kids and so on. They drew the figures' hands outstretched and open, a sign that they felt support and comfort from their families. Also, in the drawings, no family member is separated from the group -- they may be out on a picnic or outside the home, but they're all together. Most of the participants' drawings looked like these.

family 1

family 2
These are two examples of "high-functioning" household drawings (not from the study participants). Mills-Koonce said they "convey common themes of warmth, emotional closeness, togetherness and limited tension and disorganization."

In a "dysfunctional" home, where kids may feel less of a sense of security in their relationships, the figures' arms are straight down or covering their bodies. Body parts or facial expressions may be missing entirely. In these drawings, the researchers saw vastly disproportionately drawn figures -- a parent may tower over the kid, for instance. Kids may have drawn themselves behind a parent or an object, or they may have drawn themselves or a family member far away from the rest of the group. Physical distance may be indicative of an emotional distance or lack of closeness and trust, said Mills-Koonce.

family 3

family 4

These are two examples of "dysfunctional" household drawings (not from the study participants). Mills-Koonce said they show a lack of facial expression, downward arms and closed body postures, tension and heavy-handedness and physical separation.

The latter category of drawings generally indicated environmental stressors in the home, like poverty, which affected how kids internalized family relationships. The researchers observed a lot of day-to-day chaos in these "dysfunctional" households. They may have been highly cluttered and things were often lost; the TV may have been on all of the time; there might have been a lot of loud noise in the area; the parents may have been perpetually unprepared for the day's events. This kind of disorganization may be problematic for children and cause them to feel alone and less trusting of their family, which shows up in their drawings.

While kids may not directly experience the stresses associated with poverty and household disorganization, they experience them through interactions with their caregivers. In many ways, Mills-Koonce said, parents are filters through which the environment can exert influences on kids.

If parents are worried about what they see in their children's drawings, Mills-Koonce recommended that they talk to a professional -- a counselor, teacher, psychologist or clinician -- who can use the drawings to identify kids in families who may need help. A drawing might just be a drawing, but it doesn't hurt to check if you spot a red flag in your kid's art.

"I never tell parents just don't worry about something. It could be nothing, but if you have a concern, it's your job to get more information," he said.

"Worst-case scenario is you've wasted time, but you've gathered peace of mind."

Cute Kid Notes