Family Drawings and Problems Among British Children Living with Single Mothers, Step Parents, and Birth Parents

Led by Judy Dunn of the Institute of Psychiatry’s Social Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Research Center, a team of British researchers studied family drawings done by 180 5- to 7-year-olds (Dunn, O’Connor, & Levy, 2002). The children lived with a single mother, a step parent and a birth parent, or both birth parents.

The researchers assessed the children’s drawings for developmental level, the number of family members who were excluded from the drawing, and whether cohabiting parents were drawn within the same group. The children’s problems were assessed with CBCLs completed by parents and TRFs completed by teachers. Dunn et al. found no relation between the type of family and the developmental level of the children’s drawings. However, they did find that children living with both birth parents drew all family members and grouped their parents together significantly more often than children living in step-parent families. In addition, children who excluded siblings from their drawings obtained significantly higher CBCL Internalizing and Externalizing scores (based on the mean of CBCL ratings by both parents) and significantly higher TRF Externalizing scores than children who included all their siblings.

Furthermore, children who drew their parents apart obtained significantly higher CBCL Externalizing scores than children who drew their parents together. Dunn et al. concluded that there was “robust evidence for an association between exclusions and parent and teacher reports of behavioral or emotional problems; links between parent togetherness and child adjustment were also found but were less robust. Given that construct validation has been very limited or nonexistent in previous studies of children’s drawings, this is an important finding” (p. 510).

 Dunn, J., O’Connor, T.G., & Levy, I. (2002). Out of the picture: A study of family drawings by children from step-, single-parent, and non-step families. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 31, 505-512.