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What Kids' Drawings Say About Home Life

Study examines what kids' drawings say about their home life, well-being
Photograph by Getty Images/Fuse

A new study has uncovered some interesting findings about all those adorable kid drawings you have covering the kitchen fridge, and some of them may surprise you.

According to researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill, by the time kids reach six years old, their doodles, scribbles and drawings mean much more than ever before. After all, this is the age when kids start to regularly depict the "real world" in their drawings, and often insert images of themselves, or their friends and family, into the scenes they draw—so what they're doing in these images and what they look like matters. In fact, researchers say that the six-year mark is the perfect time to analyze drawings for any psychological or emotional stresses. Before six, kids aren't really sure what they're even doing with that crayon they're wielding; afterwards, they're most likely influenced by outside images of what the ideal family should look like, and not so much drawing from their own perspective.

In this latest study, researchers sat kids down for 10 minutes with just a blank sheet of paper and a few markers, and asked them to draw a picture of their family. Beyond that, there was no coaching and no instructions.

In the end, researchers found that in cases where kids had a chaotic home life, including a lack of structure, excessive noise and clutter, were more likely to draw themselves standing at a distance from their parents in family photos. They also tended to draw themselves as much smaller than the other figures in the portrait. In some of these cases, kids even gave themselves droopy arms and sad or indifference facial expressions to match.

So what does all this mean? Roger Mills-Koonce, who led the study with fellow researcher Bharathi Zvara, told NPR that these kinds of drawings point to a depreciated sense of self, resulting from less interaction with each parent due to some family struggle or chaos. But as Mills-Koonce is quick to point out, he doesn't blame this on parents alone. Rather, it stems from a "function of poverty."

Kirsten Cullen Sharma, a neuropsychologist at New York University, told NPR that while she once used these kinds of drawing tests on kids, she no longer does, due to their ambiguity.

"My colleague might not interpret drawings the same way as me, so there's a need to continue to develop evaluations so that we can rely on them," she says.

From his latest research, Mills-Koonce hopes to establish a more reliable diagnostic for interpreting the drawings in the future, so therapists can make it a regular part of their process.

"As an assessment tool this has been around for a while," he says of the drawing test, "but this is taking it and turning it into a research tool."

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