There are many times in a child’s life when they might be unwilling or unable to express to us adults what they’re feeling inside — and understandably so. Still, it can be frustrating for parents to feel like you’re doing everything you can to understand your child’s emotional state, only to keep confronting the same brick wall. But if your kids love to draw, there could be a way in.
Many mental health professionals who work with children use artwork as a way of better understanding their young patients and unearthing some feelings kids can’t quite articulate verbally. In doing so, these pros have found that even the most creative kids tend to draw the same types of objects or use similar colors when they’re experiencing certain emotions.
But don’t get carried away and start overanalyzing every line, circle and dot your kids put to paper. Dr. Christopher Hastings, a psychologist who has been conducting psychological evaluations of children and adolescents for over 10 years and often uses projective drawings to aid in interpretation, cautions parents not to separate their child’s artwork from their child and who the child is as an individual.
“When interpreting drawings from children, it is very important to get some context from the child,” Hastings says. “While some children may have a fear against certain monsters, such as vampires, some may not. Children who recently watched a kids’ movie with a vampire as the main character may relate to them in a positive way, but if they recently viewed a horror movie with the vampire as the bad guy, then the drawing would mean something completely different.”
If you’re struggling to understand your child, these five common kids’ drawings may explain a great deal about their fears, hopes and personality.
“Generally speaking, vampires and monsters represent a powerful being,” Hastings says. “If the character is the center of the drawing, it could mean the child wishes to be seen as powerful, but could also represent some significant anxiety issues.
“Another item to consider is what the child was instructed to draw,” Hastings continues. “If the child was told to draw a person and they drew a monster, this could be a negative self-view. If the child is merely drawing for their own recreation, it could be seen as a desire to be more powerful or intimidating.”
Hastings says there are a lot of theories about what children mean to express when they draw houses and other inanimate objects like rainbows and suns. However, the figure of a house is one of the first drawings kids make.
“Generally, I feel when a child draws a house, they are drawing a representation of how they see their home life,” Hastings says. “Houses can be items of stability and structure, but with children who come from negative family experiences, the house can represent a prison. As children develop, they will add more details to a house and eventually draw a three-dimensional house, rather than a two-dimensional drawing.
“A child of 6 will likely draw the typical square house with a triangle roof, whereas a teenager is likely to draw a more specific style of house and probably make it three-dimensional, showing the side of the house as well,” Hastings says. “Teenagers who draw a two-dimensional house may be emotionally stunted and could have experienced some type of trauma, preventing them from psychologically developing further.”
If you’re looking carefully at your child’s house illustration, the number (or absence of) windows could provide greater insight.
“An inordinate amount of windows may represent an openness to communicate with people, but could also be the child wishing others could ‘see’ what was going on in the house,” Hastings says. “Children who are open to others and have healthy social interactions will likely draw a typical walkway to the front door, whereas children who are closed off may not even draw such a path to their door. The more normal details to the house typically mean a more positive view of their household and family.”
Drawing a smiley yellow sun could mean a happy, satisfied state of being, but not all suns are created equal.
“Typically, children like to explain their drawings, so a person can gain incredible insight just by asking children what each item means,” Hastings says. “Overall, though, a picture of a full sun [is a sign] the child is happy and has a positive view of the world. A partial sun, drawn in the upper corner of a drawing, could indicate signs of anxiety regarding authority figures. A sun barely peeking through a cloudy sky could indicate signs of depression and maybe even feelings of hopelessness in their situation.”
Good news: Hastings says colorful rainbows are generally positive messages and are included in drawings by children who have positive viewpoints.
Disturbing pictures of family members
Few children’s drawings warm the heart like that of a row of smiling family members holding hands. But when an image of a dad or mom engulfed in flames or drowning in a swimming pool pops up on the kitchen table, it can be highly disturbing.
“Drawings depicting a specific scene with family members (such as drowning) can be very disturbing and need to be inquired about,” Hastings says. “A child may draw a family member on fire or drowning if they recently saw a TV show or movie depicting this. This could indicate the child has a level of anxiety about losing the family member in a tragic manner. This will likely be accompanied with nightmares and some separation anxiety from the given family member.
“There are cases, however, where the child has negative feelings toward the family member and drawings of a tragic event are symbolic of wish fulfillment on the child’s behalf,” he says. “Again, this is where asking the children about the drawing can help with insight.”
Overuse of one color
You may wonder, after seeing your 5-year-old’s all-black painting, whether it’s possible he or she has discovered The Cure 10 years too early. The prevailing use or overuse of one specific color can tell us a great deal about our kids’ mood.
“Blue would suggest depression, red — anger, but this may not always be the case,” Hastings says. “Some children have a preference for a specific color and may use it to replace other naturally occurring colors. Concern should arise if you see monochromatic drawings, especially if in shades of grey. This could indicate color-blindness, neurological concerns or other psychological issues.”
A version of this article was originally published in February 2016.