University of North Carolina Chapel Hill study: Stress felt by children shows up in their art

9 Dec

Both the culture and the economy are experiencing turmoil. For some communities, the unsettled environment is a new phenomenon, for other communities, children have been stressed for generations. According to the article, Understanding Depression which was posted at the Kids Health site:

Depression is the most common mental health problem in the United States. Each year it affects 17 million people of all age groups, races, and economic backgrounds.
As many as 1 in every 33 children may have depression; in teens, that number may be as high as 1 in 8.

Jyoti Madhusoodanan and Nature magazine reported in the Scientific American article, Stress Alters Children’s Genomes:

Growing up in a stressful social environment leaves lasting marks on young chromosomes, a study of African American boys has revealed. Telomeres, repetitive DNA sequences that protect the ends of chromosomes from fraying over time, are shorter in children from poor and unstable homes than in children from more nurturing families…

Not only are the child’s gene’s altered, but there are behavioral indications of the stress being felt by the child.

Will Huntsberry of NPR wrote in the article, Kids’ Drawings Speak Volumes About Home:

When children reach 6 years old, their drawings matter.

Not because of those purple unicorns or pinstripe dragons but because of how kids sketch themselves and the very real people in their lives.

In a new study, researchers found that children who experienced chaos at home — including high levels of noise, excessive crowding, clutter and lack of structure — were more likely to draw themselves at a distance from their parents or much smaller in size relative to other figures.

In some cases, these kids drew themselves with drooping arms and indifferent or sad faces.

Their drawings were a reflection of this simple fact: Chaos at home meant parents were interacting with them less and, in many cases, the interactions that were happening were shorter and interrupted.

As a result, kids ended up with a depreciated sense of self, says Roger Mills-Koonce, who led the study with Bharathi Zvara at UNC-Chapel Hill. To be clear, Mills-Koonce did not blame parents or caretakers but called this kind of stress in the home a “function of poverty….”                                                                                                                      


The Mediating Role of Parenting in the Associations Between Household Chaos and Children’s Representations of Family Dysfunction

Zvara, B. J., Mills-Koonce, W. R., Garrett-Peters, P., Wagner, N. J., Vernon-Feagans, L., Cox, M., & the Family Life Project Key Contributors


From the abstract: “Children’s drawings are thought to reflect their mental representations of self and their interpersonal relations within families. Household chaos is believed to disrupt key proximal processes related to optimal development. The present study examines the mediating role of parenting behaviors in the relations between two measures of household chaos, instability and disorganization, and how they may be evidenced in children’s representations of family dysfunction as derived from their drawings. The sample (N = 962) is from a longitudinal study of rural poverty exploring the ways in which child, family, and contextual factors shape development over time. Findings reveal that, after controlling for numerous factors including child and primary caregiver covariates, there were significant indirect effects from cumulative family disorganization, but not cumulative family instability, on children’s representation of family dysfunction through parenting behaviors. Results suggest that the proximal effects of daily disorganization outweigh the effects of periodic instability overtime.”

Related Project(s):

Children Living in Rural Poverty: The Continuation of the Family Life Project
Family Life Project

Available here: Attachment & Human Development

Or, you may utilize your local academic library to locate this copyrighted material.

Citation: Zvara, B. J., Mills-Koonce, W. R., Garrett-Peters, P., Wagner, N. J., Vernon-Feagans, L., Cox, M., & the Family Life Project Key Contributors. (2014). The mediating role of parenting in the associations between household chaos and children’s representations of family dysfunction. Attachment & Human Development. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/14616734.2014.966124

DOI: 10.1080/14616734.2014.966124

If you or your child needs help for depression or another illness, then go to a reputable medical provider. There is nothing wrong with taking the steps necessary to get well.


Schools have to deal with depressed and troubled children

School psychologists are needed to treat troubled children


  1. About.Com’s Depression In Young Children                                                
  2. Psych Central’s Depression In Young Children                                            
  3. Psychiatric News’ Study Helps Pinpoint Children With Depression
  4. Family Doctor’s What Is Depression?                                                                     
  5. WebMD’s Depression In Children                                                                           
  6. Healthline’s Is Your Child Depressed?                                                                         
  7. Medicine.Net’s Depression In Children

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