When a Child Cannot Verbalize: Interpret Their Drawings!

By Dahlia Ferrer


Find out what’s going on in their little hearts by understanding their drawings.

As an adult, it is difficult to pinpoint the words for our feelings and trace the cause of that feeling. Imagine a child. They feel and some cannot – or will not – verbalize their feeling or its cause.

In the late 19th century, psychiatrists Ambrose Tardieu and Paul-Max Simon wrote articles regarding meaning behind the art of the mentally ill. Later, in the 1920’s interpretations of children’s drawings began to appear in books and journals. One psychologist studied his own little girl and wrote his findings. In the mid 50’s it was explored more fully and conceptualized as art therapy by Margaret Naumburg, who is considered the founder of art therapy in the U.S.

When a child sits down to draw, they may be doing more than just doodling. They may be literally impressing what they are thinking of at that moment, something on the surface or a bit deeper below their consciousness. And everything from when they choose to draw, the pressure that they exert on paper and the colors, they choose may unlock a little something of what’s going on inside them.

Art generally includes both the use of art as a therapy, as well as, using the product as a means to interpret something that the person is going through, but cannot – or will not – verbalize. The more conscious people are that their drawings are being interpreted, the more likely they will dissimulate their drawings.

Children’s drawings are usually free drawing, expressing what’s on their minds.

Caritas Internationalis is a Roman Catholic nonprofit organization whose mission is to help the poor. Their first offices opened in Germany in 1897 and currently operate in 200 countries and territories.

They opened in Egypt in 1967 and currently are led by the following goals:

  • Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieving universal primary education
  • Promotion of gender equality and empowering women to reintegrate into society
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Controlling HIV (AIDS), malaria and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental safety
  • Develop a global partnership for development

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Specifically, in Egypt, they offer street children food, clothing shelter, assistance with small economic projects, loans, drug prevention, rehab and counseling.

I spoke with a Caritas psychologist, Doaa Gaafar, a graduate from Alexandria University with a degree in Psychology. She explained a bit of their process:

  1. “It helps more if you are sitting there, watching them”. Psychologists sometimes prefer to be present as the child is drawing to gage the mood, see what resources they have to color with, etc.
  2. Doaa asks questions like “what are your favorite colors” to get to know the child: for instance, maybe as a psychologist they overanalyze the fact that the child uses red for something that isn’t normally red, but it just so happens to be that child’s favorite color.
  3. At Caritas, the children are taught to draw relatively accurately all of the parts of the body for example, and if a child is asked specifically to draw a face with eyes, nose, eyebrows, ears, lips, teeth, but will continuously draw the face without a mouth, that may be something to pay attention to.
  4. Drawings are dated and scrapbooked for each child so that patterns and change can be tracked.
  5. The child may be asked to talk about his drawing, to dispel any misconclusion and to help the child get a better grasp of their own feelings.

Psychologists who rely on art therapy discourage any qualitative comments whatsoever of the drawings. If their drawings are subject to critique or comparison with other children’s, it may only serve to inhibit the child from drawing.

Community Times asked Doaa how accurate the interpretations are. “For sexual abuse penile-like objects or exaggerated emphasis on the crotch are usually obvious. However sometimes complete exclusion of anything below the waist, is also a sort of denial or avoidance of this area. Age-appropriateness also plays a part. Children under four won’t usually draw a torso, and a child may draw something at a younger age level if they are stressed due to health reasons.

Otherwise, it’s best to have the child explain the drawing, asking a simple, open-ended question. Occasionally, the children sometimes know that they are asked by a Psychologist, and hide their feelings. “One 14 year-old drew “the sun is always shining” although he was having difficulties at home. Sometimes, a child is supposed to keep a secret, or for some reason refuses to speak about something, in that case, the revealing indicator is the lack of a mouth in a drawing.

Some clues in children’s drawings:

Drawing a face = emotions in general

Drawing a person or the child’s body = usually represents themselves

Stress indicators

  • Shading, especially of face or body
  • Omission of eyes
  • Legs pressed together
  • Clouds
  • Heavy pressure on the drawing utensil


  • Red or Black
  • Inability to draw at their normal level
  • Sharper paper rotation


  • Lack of a mouth throughout various drawings

Sexual Abuse

  • Penile objects
  • Emphasis on belts, crotch area, OR total lack of this area

Unusual proportions, colors chosen and whether they use many or just a couple, scratches. Missing parts even though the child knows how to draw all parts of the body

*note some indicators are affected by culture and surroundings


Good websites



The American Art Therapy Association


The British Association of Art Therapists


Fun for Children and Parents


Finally, draw time can be used as a conscious way for children to express themselves. They can be asked to “draw their pain” if they are hospitalized, or to draw someone close to them, if they are having problems. Then they can be asked to interpret their own drawings and, importantly, to name their feelings. Keep in mind if there is psychological trauma that a child is not surpassing that it is unanimously encouraged by professionals that child should benefit from the help a professional psychologist.