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What Children Tell Us in Their Art: Warning Signs for a Closer Look

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

A child's drawing is a window into their inner world. Children's art can provide valuable insight into their thoughts, emotions, and experiences, making it a powerful tool in art therapy. Through their artwork, children may express feelings that they have difficulty putting into words, such as anger, sadness, or fear. Art therapy can help children to better understand and communicate their emotions, and as a parent or caregiver, it's important to be aware of warning signs and indications that a child may be struggling with mental health issues.

Art therapy and creative artmaking can be powerful tools for promoting self-expression, emotional regulation, and personal growth. The process of therapeutic artmaking can help children to feel heard and understood, and to develop a sense of agency and control over their lives.

In addition to emotional expression, children's art can also reveal patterns of behavior or thinking, such as perfectionism or self-criticism, that may be contributing to their challenges. Art therapists may use various techniques to explore these patterns, such as encouraging the child to try new materials or techniques, or asking open-ended questions about the artwork.

As stated by Dr. Myra Levick, a pioneer in the field of art therapy, “Drawings can be a powerful and efficient source of clues to the intellectual and emotional life of children that may not be immediately apparent in behavior,” which highlights the function that art can play in communicating warning signs or ‘danger signals’ for developmental impairment or emotional trauma. Dr. Levick indicated that these danger signals can reveal themselves in various forms.

In general, warning signs in children's art may include depictions of violence, aggression, or destruction, as well as explicit or inappropriate sexual imagery. Children may also use art to express feelings of sadness, anxiety, or fear, which could be a sign that they are struggling emotionally. It is important for parents and caregivers to be aware of any changes in their child's behavior or emotions, and to seek professional help if they have concerns about their child's well-being.

Here are a few ‘danger signals’ that Dr. Levick highlighted as being particularly significant to look out for in children’s art work:

1.) It is important to consider elements reflecting typical development for a specific age range and potential signs of regression through age inappropriate behavior or functioning.

2.) Shaky lines that appear in a child’s artwork consistently may be indicative of anxiety or a learning-related issue.

3.) Repetition of a particular form or symbol may suggest that a child is preoccupied with what that symbol may represent for them.

4.) Images of forms within a drawing that are slanted or rotated along an axis may be warning signs of a learning disability linked to perceptual issues.

5.) Challenges with maintaining boundaries inside a piece of paper may be indicative of further evaluation of a child for intellectual or emotional development deficiencies.

It's important to note that these elements alone do not necessarily indicate a problem, and it's always best to seek professional help if you have any concerns about your child's well-being.

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Book Cited in this Blog Post:

Levick, M. F. (1998). See what I'm saying: what children tell us through their art. Dubuque, IA, Islewest Pub.


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