COVID-19 & children: how drawings can be helpful in accessing a child’s inner life
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
THE INNER, EMOTIONAL WORLD OF THE CHILD WITH CHD
AUSTIN E. WILMOT, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.
Concerns about the coronavirus and all of the adjustments we have made in our daily living are more than enough to seriously impact the mental health of adults, let alone, children. For children, especially, we must attend to the way that the external world affects one’s inner, emotional world. Children have an active fantasy life that plays a pivotal role in their emotion regulation. Children have fantasies about the coronavirus. While children hear and take in information of all kinds, their own mind and imagination must digest this information at their developmental level. When left alone with various bits of information, children fill in the gaps with fantasy. Sometimes these fantasies are realistic. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes these fantasies generate burdensome anxiety and come with distortions in understanding something that warrants our attention and correction. Children with CHD already have a level of concern about their own health and fantasies about their heart, body and how everything works and does not work. Here, I would like us to consider the importance of drawings as a means of accessing a child’s fantasy life and inner world in a way that words and talking alone may not.
An activity for children
Using blank computer paper and just a pencil with an eraser:
1. Draw the coronavirus.
2. Draw your feelings about the coronavirus.
3. Draw the coronavirus making someone sick.
4. Draw how to stay safe from the coronavirus.
5. Draw how your life is different because of coronavirus.
The child is to write a short story about each picture on the back of their paper, or tell you the story to write down if they are too young to write it themselves.
For the parent:
1. Allow the child as much time as needed and do not intervene or comment during their drawing process.
2. Stick with the drawing prompt as given without deviation.
3. Once a drawing is done, be sure the story is written down about each drawing.
4. Ask the child: “Tell me about your picture.”
5. Explore all the elements of their drawing, reading the story aloud and inquiring about the storyline. Remain nonjudgmental.
Reflection & Interpretation
This activity creates a space for reflection on a child’s fantasy life, as materialized in drawings. What might we look for in these drawings?
1. How is the coronavirus drawn? Is it big and scary, or small and unappealing? Did the child erase a lot in the process or none at all? Is there any shading? Are the pencil lines thick with pressure or light and airy? Erasures and shading may indicate anxiety.
2. How are the feelings drawn? Size? Quality? Is there interaction with other elements of the drawing?
3. How is the coronavirus portrayed as infecting someone? How does that person appear?
4. How is safety from the coronavirus established? What and who is involved? What and who is not involved?
5. How is the child’s life depicted differently? What remains the same? Who is there? Who is not?
6. Is there something that we feel a need to “correct” in terms of understanding or how something looks?
These are just some questions we hold in the back of our mind while we examine the child’s drawings with them. Some of the basic things we look at on drawings are outlined in the last section, as well as their possible meanings.
If your child really enjoys this, you might do another 5-drawing activity with the same instructions (including story on back of page):
1. Draw a figure of a person.
2. Draw a figure of a person of the opposite gender.
3. Draw a family.
4. Draw yourself.
5. Draw anything.
If you would like to explore feelings about their CHD and heart:
1. Draw a heart.
2. Draw how a heart works.
3. Draw your heart.
4. Draw how your heart works.
5. Draw a doctor.
6. Draw a surgeon.
7. Draw what happened when you had your surgery/procedure.
Who the child includes in drawings and where people are placed, such as in the draw a family picture, may say something about the child’s feelings about their family and the relationships in it. How the child draws their heart, a doctor or their surgery may tell us something about their fantasies, feelings and level of understanding. The most important part, however, is to have fun! If you have concerns, consult a mental health professional.
Basics of interpreting art therapy drawings
Placement of drawing on the page—
Top of page: Lives in a fantasy world, withdrawn, avoids others
Bottom of page: Insecure, dependent, needy
Middle of page: Range of normalcy
Heavy pressure with drawing of lines: Trauma or Aggression
Light pressure with drawing of lines: Fear
Shading in drawing: Anxiety
Lots of details: Need to control
Constant Erasures: Anxiety and Stress
Small Figures or Drawings: Insecurity, possible depression, low self-esteem, withdrawal, etc.
Large Figures or Drawings: Poor Locus of Control
Slanted Figures: Unstable, insecure, possible mental imbalance
Eyes/ Large: Suspicious
Eyes / Small: Guilty or withdrawn
Closed Eye: Withdrawn
Absence of Hands: Possible sexual abuse or sense of “helplessness.”
Large Hands: Aggressive or hostile
Small Hands: Insecure
Hidden Hands: Guilt
Mitten Hands: Repression of aggressive feelings but showing compliance outwardly
Fingers Long: Aggressive
No Hands: Aggressive
Hair Messy: Confused
Hair Shaded: Anxiety
Head (Ego) Large: Fantasy Thinking
Lips Open Mouth: Possible Sexual Relevance or neediness
Long Neck: Emotional Numbness
Thick Short Neck: Aggressive
Weak Neck: Fragile
Large Nostrils: Aggression
Lopsided Shoulders: Unstable
Teeth Exposed or Jagged: Aggression or Anger