For children, drawing is usually an enjoyable art activity in which paper and pen (or pencil, crayon, and magic marker) are used to create shapes and symbols, explore the connectedness of parts to the whole, and give visible form to feelings and ideas. Most children draw symbolic pictures that replace words, but still convey meaning and affect within the therapeutic relationship (Burns, 1970; LeVieux, 1994; Nickerson, 1973, 1983). Thus, drawing can be a purposive and fairly direct representational method for understanding the conflicts and issues that trouble a child client (DiLeo, 1970; Kramer, 1971; Loewald, 1987). For example, a child may select astronauts to symbolize conquering the unknown or fleeing a difficult situation, soldier or knight figures to represent conflict and aggression or rescue efforts (Reeves and Boyett, 1983).
While each drawing is individually configured and unique in meaning, common pictorial symbols and metaphors of human figures and animals, place and weather, and toys and games usually convey fairly general meanings-albeit at times with wide variance from one culture to another (Oster and Gould, 1987). For example, alligators and other big mouth animals may be used to reflect nurturant needs or oral aggression; dogs and other cuddly animals, companionship and transitional objects; or birds, flight and freedom. Caves may hide and protect or, conversely, trap. Mountains may be attainments, obstacles, or something else entirely. Rain may reflect crying or be cleansing. Snow seems cold, the sun warm. How then, with these and the myriads of other possible meanings, does the clinical social worker figure out what a particular child has in mind? In part, the answer lies in asking the child directly (Timberlake, 1978a; Webb, 1991). In addition, the representational ways in which individual children condense multiple metaphors, details, and memories into one picture and their action style in doing so provide indirect clues to the more individualized meaning in their drawings. To make educated decisions about which of these polar opposite or nuanced generic meanings most accurately represents a nonverbal child’s intended meaning, clinicians draw on their understanding of this child gained during psychosocial assessment and other interviews, comment on the observable, and await the child’s own nonverbal or verbal confirmation that the observation is accurate or not.
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