Next time your 6-year-old says, "Look at the picture I drew mommy," take a good look.
A recent study (paywall) published in the journal of Attachment & Human Development suggests that the way children, especially first-graders, draw their families can hint at their home life. Researchers claim their work has developed a method of analyzing drawings that better serves those working with children.
According to the study, the participants included first-graders from 962 low-income families.
Each family household was evaluated for "chaos" or family disorganization, including the number of houses a child had moved to and how many primary caregivers a child had to adjust to.
In addition, the study also factored in the number of hours the television was turned on, the cleanliness of the household and the general noise level of the child's neighborhood.
After collecting the information, each child was given a sheet of paper with markers, and was then given the verbal instruction to draw their family.
"Long before children can put their complex feelings and thoughts into words, they can express both conscious and unconscious thoughts, wishes and concerns in their drawings," a researcher told New York Magazine.
Researchers found that the children who experienced a high level of distraction in their homes had a higher chance of drawing themselves at a distance from their parents or much smaller in size compared to other family figures. Some children also drew themselves with sad faces, indifferent faces or with droopy arms, reported National Public Radio.
These types of family drawings reflected that chaos at home meant parents were interacting less with their children or were more interrupted in their child-parent quality time while at home, according to NPR.
Roger Mills-Koonce, who led the study with Bharathi Zvara at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told NPR that these sad depictions can demonstrate a child's diminished sense of self-esteem and a "function of poverty" within the home.
Zvara said children living with chaos typically have strained child-parent relationships, reported New York Magazine.
While drawings have been used before to analyze a child's family and home life, Mills-Koonce and Zvara believe their project has created a system or structure social workers can use to evaluating drawings more objectively.
They believe that if clinicians can look at a child's sketch and use their newly developed system to arrive at the same conclusions as other clinicians they can help these children receive the proper attention they need, reported NPR.