Along with leftover snacks and the random twig or rock picked up at recess, there was always a constant in my son’s backpack when he returned home from preschool. Each afternoon as I unloaded the lunchbox and tidied up the cracker crumbs, I would find a crumpled piece of paper with a hand-drawn family portrait—mom, dad, Max, and his little brother Owen.
Max was 4 when he started preschool last year, and the transition was tough. He had never been to daycare and spent most of his time at home with me, so the separation hit him hard. Every morning as he hung his coat in his cubby, he would tearfully tell the teacher how much he missed his family.
“Why don’t you draw a picture of them?” his teacher would suggest, offering the exercise as both a catharsis and a distraction. And so, every day he would create a new portrait of our family of four.
Over time, I noticed his drawings changed. At first the pictures were monotone and drab, but as the weeks went on his artwork evolved. Eventually he added more color, then rainbows, hearts, a house, our pets, and more. Did the change in his doodles signal a shift in his feelings?
“Probably,” says Andrea Davis, a board certified art therapist and founder and CEO of Dallas Art Therapy. “Each time a person does art, it’s a snapshot of that moment in time.”
Artwork can be an outlet for communication. Sure, sometimes drawings are just drawings, but other times, a child’s art can be a peek into what they are thinking or feeling.
“Art, and for young children in particular, drawing, is how they make sense of the world around them,” explains Jashley Boatwright, a board certified art therapist at The Art Station in Fort Worth. “It offers insight into their world, thought process, and feelings.”
I asked the experts to look at my son’s drawings, as well as examples of other children’s art, to share what they noticed and reveal what you, as a parent, can glean from your own kiddo’s compositions.
The first thing Davis noticed about Max’s early preschool drawing, left, is that he has no arms. While this could mean he was in a hurry or distracted, she says it is sometimes interpreted as feeling “a lack of choice” or helplessness. In the later picture, on the right, she notes that everyone has arms. “That’s improvement and empowerment,” she says.
Boatwright remarked how much more detail-oriented his drawing became. “The noses have changed and the ears are more visible. Noticing those little details, I’d ask the child, ‘what does that mean to you?’”
“I think he’s identifying with dad,” Davis says of the later picture, noting that he drew both himself and his father with the same mismatched eyes and feet. “He’s saying, ‘I am like you; I am of you.”
Around age 6 or 7, most children begin to draw people, animals or objects on a baseline or groundline, Davis explains. This drawing, by a 6-year-old boy, “looks pretty normal,” she says, pointing out the tree, person and house on the groundline. “If there is a groundline but things are still floating in the air, I like to explore that,” Davis says. “When things don’t feel secure, I think it can sometimes show in this way—not grounded, in limbo.”
These family portraits by 9-year-old twin girls illustrate how each sees their family and their place in it. On the left, the artist drew her family coloring pictures of their interests together. “As a family, they do things together, and they are pretty dynamic,” Davis interprets.
On the right, the artist drew her family sitting on the couch. Her little brother is crying, clinging to his mother, whose thought bubble is a scribble.
Davis noticed a few hints of sibling rivalry. In the first picture, the artist drew herself, second from the right, with a rainbow dress, while she left her twin sister’s dress uncolored. Her little brother is on the floor; the only one without an easel. In the second picture, the artist drew the twins the same size as their baby brother.
This drawing by a 10-year-old girl shows a child sitting on a swing on an island. There are clouds and a flower without a bloom. “This really speaks for itself,” says Davis. “Loneliness can be a hard emotion for a 10-year-old to express, but boy can they with their art.” Davis says she would use this drawing as a springboard to open up a conversation with the child about her needs and find support.
A 6-year-old boy drew this family portrait. He and his mom (with the S-shaped legs) are sitting on the floor playing Connect 4, and the rest of the family is standing around watching. “This really shows where he’s at,” Davis says. “He’s really bonded to his mom and wants her all to himself.”
Decoding Your Child’s Artwork
Art therapists like Boatwright and Davis are trained in interpreting artwork, and while research tells us that doodles do, in fact, tell a story, not every artistic endeavor needs to be—or can be—analyzed.
“A lot of times when people approach art therapy they say, ‘can you look at my art and tell me things I don’t know?’” says Davis. “They tend to think it can be magically interpreted, but that’s not the case. It’s more that it opens the door for questions to be asked and things to be talked about.”
Are you looking for meaning in your child’s drawings or ways to connect with them through their art? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Pay attention to patterns or changes. Look at the drawings over time; does something show up over and over again? Or, is there a sudden change in what or how your child draws? “Be mindful of patterns, looking for repetitions and asking open-ended questions,” says Boatwright. “Then, listen. We tend to want to get to the answer quickly, but patience cannot be overemphasized.”
Don’t project your own ideas. Boatwright remembers a time when she told a child how much she loved the cat he drew. The child went on to tell his friends all about the cat, but when Boatwright looked back on what he wrote about the illustration, he said he drew a dog. “We forget the influence adults can have,” she says. “Instead of guessing, ask ‘what does this mean? What did you draw here?’”
Be aware of troubling artwork. Not everything you think of as worrisome actually is⸺children use art to make sense of things they see and experience, and sometimes are just processing through artwork. Still, the experts say violence, guns, images of being captured, drawings that seem sexual in nature, heavy coloring in the genital area, or drawing body parts that they never had before warrant looking into. “It would be important to understand the context,” says Boatwright. “Ask what it means.”
Use art to help kids open up. Have a child associate a different color to feeling happy, sad, mad and scared. Once they have assigned a color to each feeling, draw a big circle on a piece of paper and fill it in with the chosen colors. Hang it on the wall to allow the child to point to the color they feel in different circumstances. “From there, you can say, ‘let’s draw a picture of what that looks like,’” says Davis. “This helps children develop a healthy emotional language and connect that those feelings are real.”
Art Therapists in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area
Art therapists are master-level clinicians who use art, the creative process, and the resulting artwork as a therapeutic and healing method.
Jashley Boatwright, LPC-AT, ATR-BC
Fort Worth, 817/921-2401; theartstation.org
Andrea Davis, LPC-AT-S, ATR-BC
Richardson, 972/544-6633; dallasarttherapy.org
Maria LaVorgna-Smith, Ph.D., LMFT-S, LPC-S, ATR-BC
Whitney McLean, LPC-AT, ATR-BC
Fort Worth, 817/921-2401; theartstation.org
Beth Morale, LPC, ATR-BC
Janice Rose-Gill, LPC, LCAT, ATR-BC
Dallas, 214/810-0756; dallastherapistgroup.com
Lexi Sorbara, LMFT-A, ATR
Dallas, 214/449-1816; lexisorbara.com
Images courtesy of Amanda Collins Bernier