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Talking to Kids About Their Art

by Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D.

Adults are often fascinated by, and curious about, children's art. Many children and teens not only enjoy drawing, painting, and sculpting activities; their work also often reflects their thoughts and feelings. They are able to privately wrestle with challenging feelings as well as publicly communicate complex ideas and emotions. Art provides a wonderful opportunity for children to describe both their internal and external world; they may just as easily draw a portrait of their new puppy as infuse a picture with their worries about a plane crash. The process of creating is helpful but in addition children are often proud of the product. However, there are times when the goal is to describe and share an experience rather than just to make a pretty picture. In the process of creating children are able to get some distance from the situation, organize their thoughts and imagination, see options and work out solutions to problems.

Following a stressful event or life circumstance, children may turn to art more easily than words to express difficult emotions. They may use art to describe an event, tell a troubling story, express internal thoughts, or make a memorial for a special person. Additionally, overwhelming or confusing thoughts and feelings may be easier to manage and understand when they are put down on paper. Adults can help children by being interested participants and patient observers and listeners. Suggestions to guide a discussion about a child's art follow.

  • Keep the individual child's age, ability, and personality in mind. There are predictable timetables for when children are able to achieve certain things in their art, such as draw a full figure, mix colors, and paint the sky so it touches the ground. In addition, some children are more skilled or interested in using art to express themselves; thus there is a wide range in the look and feel of the final product.

  • Ask the child to describe what was drawn. Hearing from the child directly enriches one's understanding of what was done. Keep in mind that "one picture can be worth 1,000 words". But language helps others understand the nuances of what was depicted, especially when younger children's skills do not match their elaborate thinking and imagination.

  • Ask the child to tell a story. One way to begin is by prompting the child with "once upon a time…" then ask the artist to continue, including a beginning, middle, and end.

  • Ask about the formal elements of the art—colors, shapes, use of space, objects. There are times when things will be mismatched; trees will be purple or a scene described as full of people will be empty. Children often have direct explanations for their choices.

  • Abstract art may capture feelings, sensations, and memories more vividly than an accurate realistic creation. Because abstract art may be more difficult to understand, it is important to find out more about the personal ideas and meaning of the art to fully comprehend it.

  • Be specific about your response. Enthusiasm is enormously helpful, but discussion is encouraged when adults' comments are tied to particular features of the art. "You really captured the expression on Dad's face" or "That looks exactly like I remember it" rather than "That's a great painting", engages the child more with their art and the conversation.

  • Consider what might be missing but inquire about why. Some children have great difficulty drawing hands, or they ran out of room on the page, making their pictures seem incomplete or unusual. The child is the best source of information about what was included and what was not.

  • Be attentive and inquire about symbols. Children can use typical symbols as a way of expressing themselves, as when they use hearts to portray loving feelings. But symbols can also be quite personal, and children must be asked about any private meaning.

  • Adults must use have an open mind and accepting attitude when viewing children's art. It is helpful to suspend one's own thoughts so as not to attribute adult meaning to children's art.

  • Keep to a child's pace and timing of discussions. Especially if the content is troubling, children may be hesitant to discuss what they have done, or may not be ready to discuss its significance. It is better to probe with a gentle inquiry using open-ended questions, and remain available to the child for discussion at other times.

  • Listen rather than judge or direct. All children want approval and they may suppress their own tendencies or preferences if they are aware of what a teacher or parent prefers.

  • Pay attention to other cues—voice, behavior, emotions, thoughts—children may become embarrassed, quiet, avoidant, or excited when working on something or when discussing the art.

  • Look for change or repetition over time, when children draw or construct the same image repeatedly, especially if it is a troubling scene, they may be signaling that they want help or may be working to gain a strong sense of mastery and control.

About the Author

Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist specializing in bereavement issues.