Study summarised:

Can Projective Drawings Detect if a Child Experienced Sexual or Physical Abuse?: A Systematic Review of the Controlled Research

Child protection social workers often refer children for assessment to determine if any form of child abuse occurred. Many professionals who conduct assessments make use of projective drawings or other type of drawings in their evaluations, some professionals draw heavily on the interpretation of a child’s drawings when concluding their opinion.

This study answers the following question: Can projective drawings detect if a child experienced sexual or physical abuse? This study reports on a systematic review of literature. This means that the authors conducted a systematic search of the literature to identify relevant experimental studies that reported on whether projective drawings can detect if a child had experienced sexual of physical abuse.

The findings of a systematic review are regarded as reliable as it does not only draw on one study, but on numerous studies that were conducted all over the world. After a systematic search of the literature, a rigorous screening process and quality assessment of articles the authors synthesised and analysed 13 reports pertaining to sexually abused children and 10 studies examining physically abused children.

The significant findings are:

  • Many professionals incorrectly believe that when a child’s drawing include explicit genitalia or sexually related features, or emphasising or omitting some body parts it is suggestive of a history of sexual or physical abuse.
  • This study found that there is poor evidence in literature that supports this assumption that projective or other forms of drawings can help distinguish child sexual abuse and physically abused children from no abused groups.

How can you relate this to practise?

  • It is not good practice to assume that a child is physically or sexually abused based on the interpretation of any form of drawings, including projective drawings.
  • A drawing needs to be interpreted by the child him/herself while the professional is asking clarifying questions.
  • When you need to conclude on suspicions of child abuse it is best to follow a comprehensive and holistic investigative and evaluative approach where various stakeholders and the child are consulted. All allegations and suspicions need to be supported by various sources.
  • Projective drawings may be only one piece or information and should never solely be used as a determining factor of whether abuse occurred or not.
  • Always ask the question: Is there perhaps an alternative explanation for this drawing?

Carefully summarised by: