Children’s Drawings and Detention at the Border

Every child's drawing tells a unique story of trauma.

Posted Jul 07, 2019

© 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP); drawing obtained by AAP from Catholic Charities in McAllen TX
Child's Drawing of Detention at the US Border
Source: © 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP); drawing obtained by AAP from Catholic Charities in McAllen TX

[Note: This is the first of a series on children’s drawings and trauma

Children’s drawings touch me in ways like no other images. I have been studying them for more than 30 years and mostly the drawings made by traumatized children of all ages. While many of young clients’ images I have witnessed during psychotherapy evoke sadness and distress in me, the recent drawings released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) hit my gut in a way that is tenaciously visceral.

There have been many sensationalized reports and speculations about these drawings from the media and pediatricians representing the AAP who have been vocal about the treatment of children detained at the border. Understandably, the AAP wants to draw attention to situations that involve shockingly dirty and often overcrowded conditions that children and others have experienced while held in custody over weeks and months. 

We, unfortunately, do not have verbal accounts to clarify or corroborate what these children actually experienced. While the visuals in these drawings tell a story, narratives are always important because ultimately they reveal perceptions and experiences beyond what is depicted in any artistic expression. We also do not know what exact questions were asked or what was perhaps prompted in terms of drawing details or events, compromising interpretation of the actual content. 

Despite these missing pieces, these drawings do give us some starting points for conversations with these children about “what happened” and how each child perceived the circumstance of detention. One element in the three art expressions is obvious to any viewer—the presence of multiple vertical and horizontal lines that depict bars or cages. But more importantly, there are three distinctly different visual narratives that may tell us what types of trauma memories are being encoded by these young detainees if we were able to talk with them about their time in detention.

Because there is no foolproof method to interpret children’s drawings, sensitivity to idiosyncratic characteristics an individual includes is one way to learn more about content. In one drawing, for example, the child artist includes five figures who appear to be under blankets and laying on the floor. The perspective is from a bird’s eye view as if the viewer is looking at the individuals from above them. While another child’s drawing depicts five individuals behind bars, this child has instead focused on the experience of sleeping on the floor as the key memory of detention. A third drawing contains no identifiable people, but possibly what looks like two toilets; if this is true, the key memory for this child may be the odors at the facility or washroom conditions in addition to containment. 

© 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP); drawing obtained from Catholic Charities in McAllen TX
Child's drawing of people under blankets.
Source: © 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP); drawing obtained from Catholic Charities in McAllen TX
© 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP); drawing obtained from Catholic Charities in McAllen TX.
Child's drawing of detention at the border depicting toilets.
Source: © 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP); drawing obtained from Catholic Charities in McAllen TX.

These and other characteristics are entry points for working with children’s drawings through verbal storytelling. What is also unknown in this particular case is how willing or able these children were to talk about their art expressions; for some children who are deeply traumatized, words are difficult or impossible for a number of reasons. In cases where language is compromised, I find that art expression often helps me to understand and clarify the child’s embodied experience of trauma—the implicit, non-verbal sense of what happened.

For example, the experience of cold floors and Mylar blankets, unsettling smells or guards walking the perimeter may become the dominant sensory memories well after the actual events have occurred and forgotten. They are interoceptive or “felt” experiences that will likely stay with each of these children over time until repaired in some way through focused intervention. These non-linguistic communications of "what happened" are often more important than any specific declarative statements because they are the body’s memory of what happened and may return in the form of hyperactivation, dissociative responses and other trauma reactions months or even years later. 

There, of course, are many other components to understanding these children’s drawings including previous adverse events, cultural impact, developmental factors and even previous experiences with drawing. What is most important is to keep in mind that each child has a private logic when it comes to trauma and drawings are one key way this logic is inevitably communicated. [Next installment: Do children’s drawings tell the “truth”? And can they be used to corroborate events and establish evidence of atrocities?]