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Does 4 Year Old's Drawing of a Person Indicate Developmental Delay?

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Dr. Laura,

My 4 year old son seems to be a bit emotionally and developmentally sort slower then my other kids have been. I am not sure if he is this way because he was the youngest for so long, or what. i know all children are different, it just seems that some of his behaviors are sort of "young". Some examples: he can't dress himself. he potty trained only about 2 months ago, he can't seem to draw even the crudest people; he is still into scribbling, no people who are a head and arms yet even.

And he has some behaviors that are sort of worrying me, yesterday, for example, he ask his big sister for a hug and then head butted her which was really upsetting to her and when i was talking to him about it he said she dropped him on his head, she didn't. he snatches things from people, he won't listen to people, he hides under things when he does something he shouldn't *(like head butt someone). he acts scared of dh and won't even talk to him most of the time. (dh does work outside the home and i have been a SAHM for the last year, before that i worked part time as a nurse).

We have had another baby in the last 6 months so I have been thinking he has sort of stayed 'babyish" because of that, it isn't like he reverted because he has been this same way for about 18 months at least. which is why i am asking, he seems to be sort of stuck at his 2 1/2 year old self. he won't share at all, in fact he takes stuff from people and hits them and calls them mean. we are all trying to be gentle with him, but honestly this is getting really old.

i do have to say he is very loving to his little sister, he never has hurt her, although he takes stuff from her too (not that she cares yet at 6 months old). and he is very loving to me and my oldest son (who is 13) but everyone else sort of gets the "nasty" side of him. i want to help him try and get past this because it is driving me crazy.


Dear Mama,

I can see why this behavior is driving you crazy. And I can see why you're checking in to see if there is cause for concern. You have a lot of experience as a mom given that you have six kids, so I would trust your instincts about your little guy. Every child has his or her own timetable for development, but the fact that you are seeing him as "stuck" in this phase is concerning.

On the plus side, he is loving to two of his siblings (the oldest and youngest) and to you, so he is fully capable of connecting lovingly.

He also is potty trained, on the late side but by no means as late as many kids with developmental issues.

On the negative side, he doesn't seem to have much of a relationship with his dad.

He seems to have a sense of scarcity, indicated by his snatching things from others. Not sharing is not unusual, but constantly taking things from others, and blaming them--calling them mean, hitting them--is.

So the fact that he blames others when he takes their things is also a bit concerning. To me, this indicates that he feels he is under attack, that he is somehow being wronged and has to defend himself.

His interaction with his sister where he asked her for a hug and then head-butted her shows some difficulty managing his feelings. Like the hug brought up feelings he couldn't manage, and they came out as aggression.

Aggression signals that the person has feelings they don't want to feel, usually fear. The fact that he hides, and acts scared of his dad, also signals fear.

It sounds to me like you do not use conventional discipline, so that isn't a source of fear. With five other children, including a new baby, your son could be excused for feeling competitive, or like he wasn't getting as much loving attention as he wants. If you aren't already spending a half hour every day just focusing on him, I would highly advise it. This "special time" will help him to stop snatching things and blaming others. And if you can use the time to play games with him that produce giggles, he will let out some of that fear, and that will also help tremendously. And if his dad can spend regular special time with him, including games that help your son giggle, it will transform their relationship. For ideas about games to play to emotionally connect with your child, see this article on the Aha! Parenting website:

So I think that daily special time with each parent will be transformative for your son whether or not he has developmental delays of some sort. But now let's talk about that possibility.

The Draw a Person Test is a useful shortcut to asses a child's developmental level and is valid across cultures. You just ask the child to "draw a person." When kids are two, they scribble and tell you it is a person but it does not look like a person at all. Sometime in the third year, their people have a round shape for a head as part of the scribble, but it still doesn't look much like a person. I gather from your note that your son is somewhere between a two year old and a three year old in his depiction of a person.

Sometime in the fourth year, they add arms and legs (just lines, usually). These often come right out of the head circle, meaning there is no real body. Sometimes they add eyes. So the average four year old's drawing is beginning to look like a person, but the head often serves as the body. Here's an idea of what I mean, courtesy of

Notice this four year old's drawing is VERY detailed and well-developed with facial features and hair, but still has no body. Below is a sampling (courtesy of the same website) that has drawings by four and five year olds. As you can see, there is a huge range, but they are moving toward a head, body, arms, legs, and eyes.

Now, many children surpass these averages. Many lag a bit behind and it is no cause for concern. There is a wide range of normal and some kids can be very advanced. But when a four year old is "just scribbling with no head yet" that could definitely be an indicator of developmental delays.

I would suggest that you make an appointment with your son's pediatrician and ask to speak on the phone with the doctor in advance of the appointment. Tell her or him about your concerns, particularly the draw a person test. At the appointment, the doctor will do some quick neurological, motor and language assessments. If your pediatrician thinks there is cause for concern, he or she will refer you to a specialist for further assessment.

In the meantime, your little guy is who he is, not who we think he should be. That means he needs and deserves the same unconditional love as any child. He may require a lot of extra patience on your part -- not easy, with four other children plus a new baby in the house. But every child has different struggles and different gifts. This child has as much to teach you as you have to teach him. The more you strengthen your bond with him, the easier he will be to parent, and better he'll relate to everyone else in your family. Spend one on one time with him, look for things to appreciate about him, and do everything you can to enjoy him and see him positively. No matter what else is going on with him, you will see a tremendous transformation.

Blessings to you and your family.

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