The Human Drawing Figure

As many other Psychology Majors, during my last semester in college I applied to Graduate School. My decision of pursuing a career in psychology had always been an option, but it wasn’t until quite recently that I decided to continue my studies in the field of child and developmental psychology.

A few weeks ago, while having an exciting debate about the truthfulness and pertinence of psychoanalysis in today’s discipline, my dad surprised me with a “killing” argument. Among the most used techniques when evaluating children today, we find projective tests. More specifically, he pointed out that, upon acceptance, I will be working with patients whom will be unable to verbalize their feelings and thoughts. Projection techniques are therefore the way to go!

I did a bit of digging in what I thought was the most interesting test, the Human Figure Drawing (HFD) projective test. In a nutshell, the child (between 5 and 12 years of age) is asked to draw a whole person, that is, with full legs (not toothpicks) and clothes (not naked with a triangle for a skirt). There is no limit time for the task, and he or she can erase as many times as desired. The tester must examine how the figure is drawn, who is being drawn, and what is being drawn. The drawing is scored on expected items, common items, and exceptional items. The latter comprises characteristics in the drawing that are of low frequency within the child’s age group, and the former are those that are found at a higher frequency. What surprised me the most (and made me reconsider my position towards other techniques of a psychoanalytic nature) was that the HFD is highly correlated (between 0,6 and 0,8) with the WISC, making it a valuable tool for emotional and mental evaluation in children.

Some interesting facts about the procedure:

- A figure inclined in a 15-degree angle or more might be an indicator of instability and lack of general balance in life.

- Small figures indicate shyness, while big figures correspond to more externalizing tendencies (i.e. conduct problems).

- A small head (more present among clinical populations) is related to feelings of intellectual inadequacy.

- The presence of teeth is found in all groups, but less among shy children. More importantly, children presenting aggressive behaviours tend to draw them more often.

Lastly, two children (boy, 8 YOA and girl, 14 YOA) with extremely different profiles drew these two figures. Can you tell who drew which?

You might have answered that the author for the one on the left is the 8-year-old boy, given its lack of details and symmetry, and the one on the right by the 14-year-old girl. You will be surprised to know that this is false. Both figures open a door into the child’s world, and in their own way, they transmit information about the internal struggles and developmental stages.

Koppitz, E. M. (1968). Psychological evaluation of children’s human figure drawings. New York: Grune & Stratton.

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