Understanding Children's Drawings
-Cathy A. Malchiodi

Excerpts from Chapters 2-5

Excerpt 1: Chapter 2: Children's Drawings in Context

In my own work with children's drawings from a phenomenological approach, the first step involves taking a stance of "not knowing." This is similar to the philosophy described by social constructivist theorists who see the therapist's role in work with people as one of cocreator, rather than expert advisor. By seeing the client as the expert on his or her own experiences, an openness to new information and discoveries naturally evolves for the therapist. Although art expressions may share some commonalities in form, content, and style, taking a stance of not knowing allows the child's experiences of creating and making art expressions to be respected as individual and to have a variety of meanings. In circumstances where therapists use cookbook approaches to catagorize images or a list of predetermined meanings for content, it is more likely that children's multiple or individual meanings will not be conveyed, will be misunderstood, and will possibly be disrespected.

A second feature of a phenomenological approach is the opportunity to acknowledge many different aspects of growth that are linked to art expression, including cognitive abilities, emotional development, interpersonal skills, and developmental maturity, and in my experience, somatic (physical) and spiritual aspects, subjects that will be addressed in subsequent chapters of this book. Children use art to integrate not only their inner experiences and perceptions, but also to link their experience of the outside world with the inner self, helping them to discover and affirm themselves and their relationships to people, environment, and even society. This multiplicity of meaning provides the therapist with material for developing and deepening the therapeutic relationship while also honoring the unique experiences of the child client from many perspectives. Although it may be difficult to truly understand all levels of meaning in children's expressive work, it is important to allow for the possibility of "multimeaning." As Rubin (1984b) notes, art has a potential to symbolize not only internal events, but interpersonal ones as well, and to condense many experiences, feelings, and perceptions into a single visual statement.

A phenomenological approach allows the therapist to comprehend children's drawings from an integral orientation rather than from a limited perspective. Many therapists unfortunately learn to rely on one or two theories in their thinking about clients. In my own training as an art therapist, I was originally taught to look at children's art expressions from developmental and emotional (mostly psychoanalytic) aspects. Since that time, experience with children has taught me that other aspects in addition to development and affect can be present in children's art, and if recognized and accepted, provide a more complete representation of the child's world.

One clinical example continues to be important in guiding my clinical work today and demonstrates that looking at children's work from narrow perspectives can limit the amount learned from children's drawings. In working with a little girl at a domestic violence shelter as her primary therapist, I was naturally concerned she may have experienced abuse from her father who had been reported to be violent to her mother and younger brother. Her drawings made during art therapy sessions at the facility particularly concerned me; each of them always contained a black center, particularly images of her body or human figures. This repetition of dark shading in her drawings led me to think that emotional or physical trauma might be rooted in this use of color. Since my training as an art therapist emphasized the emotional meanings of art expression, I naturally looked in that direction. However, this thinking obstructed other possible reasons as to why the child continued to use this characteristic in her work.

I later was surprised to learn that the girl had not been abused, but was indeed emotionally traumatized. She was so deeply traumatized, however, that she internalized her stress, and this in turn had caused her to develop a very painful stomach ulcer. When we later talked again about her drawings, she admitted to me that the black spots she included in each drawing were images of her physical pain, but she did not want to share this with anyone because of the trouble it might cause her mother and brother. In retrospect, if I had asked her about physical complaints rather than focusing solely on the emotional aspects of her traumatic situation, I may have considered other meanings for this repetitive use of black in her artwork.

Drawings generally have been routinely interpreted and even distorted through the singular use of psychological perspective or theory. For example, if a child draws a fish with an X-ray view of the contents of its stomach, a psychoanalytic view might see it as fears of being eaten by another or subconscious desires to devour something or someone. A cognitive view might focus on the thought process that went into making the drawing, investigating or speculating about what the child has recently seen (e.g., a nature show on television) or heard (e.g., the story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish). Another perspective may concentrate on the idea of metaphor, seeing the image as symbolic story unfolding, perhaps even archetypal in nature and representative of a universal theme or existential dilemma. In actuality, all of these approaches may contribute something important to one's overall understanding. Despite the problems inherent to projective drawing tasks and other systems of finding meaning in children's drawings, as Wilber (1996) notes about research in general, no one theory of understanding is completely wrong and "nobody is smart enough to be wrong all the time" (p. 13). In the case of children's art expressions, no one theory of interpreting or deciphering them is completely erroneous, and each does contribute some useful knowledge to understanding children's work.

Although a phenomenological approach is advantageous to understanding children's drawings, one cannot completely discount some of the more reliable information available relating specific content in children's drawings to certain meanings, experiences, and difficulties. This information can be useful, especially if used respectfully and as an additional perspective on children's art expressions. Many children, for various reasons, cannot or will not want to talk about their drawings. Some children will not talk simply because they cannot articulate their experiences with words. Others, particularly children seen in therapy, may feel threatened or afraid to tell their experiences, fearful of revealing a personal or family secret. Some may be concerned about what the therapist will think or do if they convey problems they are experiencing. For example, a 12-year-old girl I saw in my practice felt that she would be burdening the therapist with her problems because she saw the problems of her younger siblings as more important. Her assumption of the role of "caretaker" in her family affected what she said about herself and what she was willing to disclose to others who sought to help her. In this case and other cases where children's verbal communication is limited, some framework for understanding drawings may be necessary.

Looking with a "phenomenological eye" also includes accepting and expecting that each child has a different way of approaching art and an individual style of drawing with particular likes or dislikes for colors, forms, and compositions in their art expression. Children, like adults, have preferences for colors, certain images they like to draw, compositional styles and other characteristics that they may repeatedly use in their work. Mental health professionals, although perhaps not trained or experienced in visual art, also have preferences that may affect their understanding of children's work. Part of understanding children's drawings as unique phenomena includes understanding what you are personally attracted to in children's imagery, which images cause you to react strongly and which do not, and even realizing that you may reject or dislike some children's drawings. This esthetic response is part of how all individuals react to visual images, but for therapists who work with children's drawing, these responses become particularly important because these reactions do affect how drawings are judged, or which aspects are given attention.

Excerpt 2: Chapter 3: Working with Children and their Drawings

Is Talking Necessary?

As already mentioned, one way of increasing understanding of the meaning of children’s art expressions is to listen to children’s narratives about their drawings. Simply asking children questions about their drawings encourages them to tell the therapist many things beyond the obvious visual content of the drawing itself. Like de Saint Exupery’s story of his misinterpreted drawing, our understanding of children’s drawings is often greatly enhanced by children’s descriptions of them.

In my work with children, my personal goal through talking with them about their drawings is twofold: (1) to help the child externalize thoughts, feelings, events, and world views through artistic expression and storytelling; and (2) to help me to better understand the child’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and perceptions of events and the environment so that I can provide the best possible intervention on behalf of the child. While the latter goal focuses more on the area of assessment (i.e., evaluation of the child), for me, the first goal in working with children and their drawings is process-oriented.

Therapists who have not used drawings extensively in therapy with children often wonder if it is always necessary to have children talk about their drawings. In the course of my work with children, I have not interacted with many children who were unwilling to say something about their drawings. I believe that if the activity is appealing to a child, the therapeutic relationship is one of trust, and the environment is secure and supportive, the art process itself naturally leads to verbal communication and exchange. Engaging drawing naturally relaxes many children, allowing them to become absorbed in a creative and hopefully pleasurable task; by reducing some of the stress that brought them into therapy, they subsequently are more willing to talk with the therapist during or after drawing. For many children, drawing actually leads to wanting to share information that they might not otherwise disclose, especially if they feel comfortable with the creative activity or directive provided.

Although think it is important to have children say something about their art expressions, this may not always be possible, and once in a while, children may be resistant to talking about their drawings for various reasons. Some children may be shy or withdrawn, and some are just too young to talk. Children may also have language difficulties or speech problems, or English may not be their first language. Children who have been traumatized by abuse or violence may feel constricted when talking, especially if they have been threatened or told not to talk about themselves, their families, or their experiences (Malchiodi, 1990). Cultural background may influence some children who may have been taught by their parents to politely give short answers to questions and to limit interaction through speech or eye contact with adults in authority, and these cultural beliefs must be respected and accepted. Fortunately, drawings themselves convey a great deal of information about children, the subject of the remainder of this book. However, because of what therapists can learn, I believe it is important for them to know how to talk to children about their drawings when this is appropriate. As delineated in the next section, a series of questions can be used to help therapists gather information about children’s art products as well their process of drawing.

Talking during the Drawing Process

Therapists often wonder how much to talk with children while they are in the process of drawing. For standardized drawing tasks, usually no talking is allowed, although I often find myself breaking that rule if a child likes to talk to me while completing a drawing. With some children it is easy to see that they are engrossed in the activity and talking with them would be disruptive to what they are doing. Some therapists find it difficult not to talk and ask questions while the child is working and may even find it uncomfortable if the child does not respond verbally to the questions asked. Children may not respond for several reasons, one being that they are absorbed in the creative task at hand, wishing that the talkative adult would allow them to have full concentration on the drawing that the adult encouraged them to do in the first place. As Gardner (1982) noted in studies of young children, children even become annoyed by the adult who constantly interrupts the process by asking questions. For some children, any type of verbal disclosure may not be possible, particularly while trust in the therapeutic relationship is developing. However, there are also children who draw rather quickly, finish the task almost immediately, and want to talk about their work for a much longer time than it took to create it.

Other times, the therapist’s questions may be problematic. For example, a question may be too probing for the stage of the therapeutic relationship, may be inappropriate, or the child may just not be able to answer it. Children who are fearful of revealing a family secret or those who have been abused often are not very verbally responsive to direct questions, particularly in the early stages of therapeutic work. Their art may say many things about the pain they are experiencing, but, as most therapists realize, children who are fearful of repercussions may be unwilling to talk at all in early stages. Many helping professionals who do not have very much experience or training in the use of drawing activities in therapy may actually encourage too much dialogue with the child, rather than allow the process of drawing to unfold.

Talking about the Finished Drawings

Because of their uncertainty about talking with children about their drawings, some therapists simply look at children’s drawings for characteristics that may imply depression, trauma, or other feelings or perceptions and to make determinations about personality or development from these observations. However, through talking with children about their drawings, the therapist has the opportunity not only to learn more about the children with whom they work, but also to offer children the chance to express themselves and to grow through the process of creative activity within the framework of therapy.

In working with children’s drawings, it is best to be judicious in the use and types of questions. Asking a child “why” he or she drew a particular element is usually unproductive. Most children have a difficult time explaining why they did something and will usually say in response that they “don’t know” or may say nothing at all. In most situations, a more productive direction is to simply describe out loud what one sees in a drawing. For example, the therapist can refer to various elements in the drawing, saying, “I see a person looking out of the window of the house and a dog in the yard,” or “I see a large yellow circle with blue wavy lines around it,” waiting for a response from the child. Usually, the child will add some information about the picture, especially if the adult has missed some obvious feature or detail that is important to the child. The therapist can then continue to wonder out loud about the elements in the drawing, saying, perhaps, “I wonder what that person is thinking when he looks out of the window?” (waiting for the child to respond or comment); “I wonder what does he see when he looks out?”; or “I wonder what is the dog thinking?” (or feeling or doing, depending on the situation). As discussed earlier, this type of questioning implies taking a stance of “not knowing” on the part of the therapist and usually is effective in generating a productive conversation between therapist and child. In a real sense, one does not really know what an image means to the child, and by conveying one’s interest in learning about the drawing in an open-ended way, the child is given the opportunity to explain elements in the drawing from his or her perspective.

The therapist’s involvement in directing the course of activity and interaction is ultimately based on the therapist’s own style of working with children. Solution-focused, cognitive-behavioral, or any number of other approaches may be taken. However, as in all therapeutic modalities with children, the clinician working with drawings will often reflect feelings back to the child, particularly when the child is obviously expressing powerful emotions in a drawing. Reflecting feelings back to the child helps to reinforce the therapist’s acceptance of the content of the child’s pictures and strengthens the natural process of the child in using drawings as reparation. For example, a 7-year-old boy who witnessed his mother being severely battered by his father drew a picture of his father as a “bad man with a hammer and a knife” and said that he “was glad that he went to jail for what he did.” The therapist might respond with “I guess seeing your dad hurt your mom really hurt you. It’s OK not to like your dad because of what he did. I’m glad you are telling me about these feelings.”

There are a number of general questions the therapist might ask a child at the completion of a drawing:
    What title would you give this picture? Tell me about your drawing. Or, what is going on in this picture? These are broad questions that are helpful as openings to communication.

    How do the people or animals in this picture feel? Since one of my goals in any therapeutic relationship with children is to help them to express feelings, I usually ask about the figures in the drawing, giving the child the opportunity to project or relate feelings through them. If there are objects (cars, houses, trees), the therapist might also ask how each of them feels. When I ask children about how inanimate objects feel, children may be confused (or think the therapist has a serious problem), so I often preface the question by saying that we are pretending that the house, car, or tree has feelings. If the drawing is composed of colors, shapes, or lines, the therapist may also ask “How does this shape (line or color) feel?”

    How do the figures in the drawing feel about one another? If they could speak, what would they say to each other? These questions are related to expression of emotions, but they also may assist the child in developing a story about the drawing. The therapist may also pretend to be the voice of one of the figures, animals, or objects in the drawing and ask the child to speak for another figure in the drawing. This approach is similar to that of play therapy when using toys or sandtray figures in a dialogue with each other.

    Can I ask the little girl, little boy, dog, cat, house, and so forth, something? Through this type of question, the child is encouraged to answer for the little girl, little boy, dog, cat, or house.
All of the questions discussed above are useful in generating a story about drawings. Most of the questions use a third-person approach rather than direct confrontation. Although many children will be quite comfortable in relating stories about their drawings from a first-person perspective, with some children, particularly those in therapy for serious trauma or disturbance, a more indirect approach to discussing drawings is useful. Using storytelling in the third person permits a degree of safety and distance and, at the same time, allows children to be the experts in relating meaning of their drawings.

Some children find it preferable to use a prop, such as a puppet, mask, or a toy to act out an answer to a question or to develop a story. As Oaklander (1978) notes, “It is often easier for a child to talk through a puppet than it is to say directly what he finds difficult to express. The puppet provides distance, and the child feels safer to reveal some of his innermost secrets this way” (p. 104). For example, the therapist might ask, “Would you like to use one these puppets (or masks) to talk? Can one of these toys answer the question I asked?” In my experience, talking with a child about drawings through a third person’s voice by using either drawings or props such as puppets to explore images, naturally reduces feelings of shyness, anxiety, self-blame, guilt, and fear by creating a voice through which the child can safely speak.

For some children, drama or movement with or without props may be more appropriate and more enjoyable than purely drawing and talking. Sometimes I ask children to show me through movement what particular characters in their drawings would do if they could move or to help to dramatize the content of their art. Again, a set of puppets can also be used to act out a drawing through movement or to convey what might happen next in a drawing if the figures could move and talk.

A tape recorder can also encourage storytelling, with the added benefit of recording the story verbatim as it is told by the child. Most children like the playback feature, and it also allows me to comment or wonder out loud about other details of the story when we listen to it played back. The tape recorder can also be used as an interview device, especially if it has a microphone attachment; I have an older hand-held microphone that most children enjoy holding and speaking into. Even children who are quite shy get excited and animated. It works particularly well if the therapist can be a ham while doing the “interview.”

Excerpt 3: Chapter 4: Developmental Aspects of Children’s Drawings

There is an increasing ability to create time sequences (e.g., images showing travel, journeys, a batter hitting a ball), drawings that imply that a series of events will happen. For example, 6-year-old Ian’s drawing of a baseball pitcher who has just pitched the ball to the batter now watches the ball flying overhead (Figure 4.20). This simple drawing implies many things—that the pitcher has thrown the ball, the batter has hit it, and it is now going out of the ballpark (according to Ian’s description of the outcome). These aspects of storyline and time sequences, along with the emergence of X-ray pictures, are two developmental themes that therapists or teachers working with children may want to use to stimulate drawing in children in this age range.

Excerpt 4: Chapter 5: Emotional Content Of Children's Drawings

Depressed children’s drawings may reflect their own self-destructive behaviors and feelings of failure. An 8-year-old boy, Felix, who was placed in a group home for boys because of family problems, was depressed because of separation from his family and school and acted out his frustration through his encopresis. Unfortunately, at first it was difficult to determine which of the boys had this condition, because evidence of the encopresis was found only in public areas of the home (on the walls of the recreation room and in several bathrooms) so no one could identify which boy was leaving and smearing the feces. Although Felix was among several suspects at a group home, no one was quite certain. The staff psychologist asked me if I had any ideas about which boy was doing it, but unfortunately, I was as perplexed as the rest of the staff.

I decided to call together all the “suspects” to the art room, discussed the problem with them, and then asked them to draw a picture of anything they wanted to draw. Felix drew a well-detailed race car emitting a large plume of black smoke out of the rear tailpipe (Figure 5.13). Although race cars are typical themes that appear in boys’ drawings, the black smoke was noticeably profuse. While the smoke could simply be car exhaust, it struck me that it might be representative of another type of exhaust, especially since Felix spent quite some time perfecting it in his picture. After the group, I shared my suspicions with Felix, and he admitted to me that he indeed was the one who was smearing feces throughout the facility. He was not only depressed and frustrated about his family situation, but also about his encopresis, as well as ashamed and embarassed about what he had been doing.

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