When it comes to correctly understanding children's emotions, a Brigham Young University nursing professor has found, a child's drawings may be worth a lot more than a mere thousand words.
In a study that may help explain how children respond to and cope with stress, Elaine Shaw Sorensen of the BYU College of nursing thinks she may have finally succeeded in giving children a voice in family-related research.Her discovery blazed a path into an area of family relations that has been afforded precious little study in the past - allowing children to be involved in family research by reporting and being a source of data.
"We are finally able to get some clues that tell us what a child's true emotions are," Sorensen said. "Oftentimes children just want to give the `correct' answer when they are asked a research-type question. With drawings we can find better clues to explain a child's true emotional state because (the drawings) are spontaneous."
Sorensen studied 42 "healthy" children ages 7-11 by asking them to complete daily diaries that would chronicle the hassles and other stressors the child may have encountered. Parents of the children were also asked to keep diaries of the child's day and stressful activities.
At first the child was invited to draw a picture to explain the day only as a means of maintaining the child's interest in the program. Sorensen soon found the drawings to be a valuable tool in interpreting a child's feelings, and she collected hundreds of drawings to study.
"This is a typical reflection of a healthy child," Sorensen said, displaying a drawing with bright colors, flowers and a rainbow. She then picked up a drawing of a stick figure separated from a group of several stick figures. "But this one reflects the isolation and distance a child can endure when the stress level is high. It reflects a daily hassle."
Sorensen said she found that the most important thing a parent can do is to simply listen to children. There were fewer problems with children and parents who had similar diaries because they felt as if they had been understood.
"I got a lot more data from the diaries, but the artwork told us so much that it became an essential part of the data," she said.
So significant was the artwork that she devoted an entire chapter of her new book, "Children's Stress and Coping: A Family Perspective" to its description.
"Artwork is how a child speaks - we can get some real important clues from it."
Although Sorensen's study focused on childhood stress in healthy children - she said she now hopes her findings will encourage others to use drawings to do more research on children with illnesses or disabilities.
"We need to look at children who are not in a healthy atmosphere," she said. "There might be more to learn from them by looking at their diaries and drawings."