Watch a child draw and they can seem so absorbed, their brow furrowed in blissful concentration. It seems an ideal way for them to cope with negative emotion. But what’s the best approach – should they draw about what’s upsetting them (“venting”), copy illustrations by someone else, or create their own unrelated picture?
Jennifer Drake and Ellen Winner first compared the effects of children venting versus creating their own picture. They recruited 83 kids age 6 to 12 at a museum. They nudged them into a bad mood by having them spend a minute thinking about a time they’d been disappointed. Half the kids then spent 5 minutes drawing about that disappointing occasion; the others drew a house. Using a scale of smiley faces for the kids to indicate their mood, the researchers found that the mood of children who drew a house recovered more than the children who drew about the disappointing experience.
A second study was similar but this time 123 children were split into three groups. After recalling a disappointing experience, some of them drew that experience, others drew a house, and a final group copied pictures of household items. Mood recovery in the “venting” group and the copying group was equivalent, and failed to match the recovery enjoyed by the kids who created their own drawing of a house. In this study, but not the first, the mood benefits of drawing were greater for the younger children, perhaps because they were more absorbed in the task.
Kids found the house task more enjoyable than venting in the first study, but in the second study there was no difference in enjoyment across conditions. Drake and Winner speculated that drawing a house was more beneficial than venting or copying because it was more distracting.
The researchers concluded: “Improved understanding of the mechanisms by which drawing helps children regulate their emotions could have implications for therapeutic interventions for children with poor emotion-regulation skills and for those with depression.”
Unfortunately the first of these studies suffered from a serious methodological weakness. The researchers ought to have included a no-draw control condition. It’s possible that the children’s mood would have bounced back without the benefits of drawing. If so, the results actually show the “venting” task having an adverse effect, rather than the house-drawing having a positive benefit.
The second study rectified this issue somewhat by having a copying task, but still we don’t know how the children’s mood would have repaired if they’d just been left to their own devices. Another issue, acknowledged by the researchers, is that we don’t know if the apparent house-drawing benefits came from the creative aspect of that task or from the subject matter. Perhaps houses have positive connotations for most children and their mood was repaired by house drawing for that reason.
Drake, J., and Winner, E. (2012). How children use drawing to regulate their emotions Cognition and Emotion, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2012.720567