One of the hidden but powerful aspects of family photography that moms and most photographers rarely consider is how it can help us raise children with stronger confidence in their own worth and abilities. Psychologists and experts have done some work in recent decades exploring the link.
Stanley Coopersmith, Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventories Manual
Stanley Coopersmith, Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventories Manual
I took some time to research and set up a few interviews with experts in psychology and mental-health therapies across the United States and Canada to get their input about how family portraits can help the emotional and psychological well-being of our children.
But first it may help to see what specific research in the past has told us on the subject.
Photography, Children and Self-Esteem: The Murfreesboro Study
There was a revealing study conducted in 1975 with a group of fourth graders at a Murfreesboro, Tenn. school. The study was conducted by Jerry Fryrear of Tulane University and Mary Ammerman with Murfreesboro City Schools.
What The Study Discovered
The children were selected from a set of test results indicating they had self-esteem scores below the median score of all the fourth-grade students. These chosen students participated in a carefully set-up study over the course of five-weeks.
During those five weeks, the children took polaroid instant photos of themselves with provided cameras in a variety of assigned poses, compositions and expressing various emotions. The children worked with the printed images of themselves and created scrapbooks once a week over those five weeks.
Testing of the students and teachers at the conclusion of the five weeks revealed a significant increase of 37 percent in the students’ average self-esteem behaviors as seen by their teachers versus a control group which showed just a 10 percent increase on those same scores.
Here is the link to the study:
So the Murfreesboro study shows some evidence personal photography of children seen and enjoyed in a specific way can help boost a child’s self-esteem. But can family photography, specifically family portraits, help boost a child’s self-esteem? Here’s what the experts had to say.
Meet The Experts
Editor’s Note: Rather than cite a 40-year-old study and leave it at that (I really tried to find more recent studies but I do have to run a photography studio!) I thought it would be helpful to go back and interview some experts to see what has changed in recent years when it comes to photography as a means of nurturing a positive self-image for children.
After all, photography has greatly changed in recent years. I wanted to see, what if anything, the experts would say has changed about the power of photography to help parents nurture strong self-esteem in their children.
Some of the biographical summaries above were taken (with permission) from the “Who Is Doing What, Where” page of the website “PhotoTherapy and Therapeutic Photography Techniques.”
David A. Krauss, Ph.D
Krauss, from Cleveland, Ohio, has been involved professionally with PhotoTherapy since 1977 and is one of the pioneers in the field, having made contributions as an early advocate and trainer as well as the writer who delineated the theoretical foundations of the field.
He taught the first college level course in the subject in 1978, and in 1979 completed his doctoral dissertation, “The Uses of Still Photography in Counseling and Therapy: The Development of a Training Model.” At that time he created the Center for Visual Therapies as a nexus of training and information about the field. He subsequently was the major contributor to the 1983 book “Photo Therapy in Mental Health” which he co-edited with Jerry Fryrear, Ph.D. David received a grant from the Polaroid Foundation in 1981 for phototherapy research in partial hospitalization populations.
He was a presenter at all International PhotoTherapy conferences and also organized the first five-day International Phototherapy conference at Kent State University in Kent Ohio in 1982. David, in collaboration with about a half dozen colleagues created the International Phototherapy Association and he served as its first president.
He was the PhotoTherapy Journal’s editor for training during its several year tenure. David has written numerous articles regarding both theory and application of this modality and has done presentations and training in America, Canada, Great Britain and Europe. He continues to be pleased to share his enthusiasm and energy for this field. David is a clinical psychologist, photographer and musician.
Judy Weiser, Ph.D
Weiser who is from Vancouver, British Columbia, is a licensed psychologist, registered art therapist, and one of the earliest pioneers of PhotoTherapy techniques. Director of the PhotoTherapy Centre, which she founded in 1982 to serve as the world’s networking base and extensive resource library for these fields, she is now considered the world authority on the techniques of PhotoTherapy, Photo-Art-Therapy, Therapeutic Photography, and VideoTherapy. She is the author of the book “PhotoTherapy Techniques: Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums.” She also created and maintains the primary informational resource and networking website for the field.
bio courtesy of The PhotoTherapy Centre
From St. Louis, Mo., Lander-Goldberg is a professional photographer and licensed clinical social worker who frequently uses expressive therapies in her psychotherapy practice in St. Louis, Mo. She also is the director for PHOTO EXPLORATIONS, which offers workshops to girls and women using portraits and journaling for self-reflection. She is the photographer for the traveling exhibition, Resilient Souls: Young Women’s Portraits & Words, which opened in 1996, and she is currently working on a 20-year-follow up on the subjects’ lives.
Craig Steinberg, Ph.D
From Eugene, Ore., Craig Steinberg, PhD is a psychologist with over 20 years of clinical experience. Steinberg is currently in private practice and also works part-time as a school counselor, both in Eugene, Oregon. Steinberg previously worked as a therapist in a residential treatment program for children and as a therapist in a community outpatient mental health clinic. While working at the residential treatment program, he developed an innovative and effective use of photography within a group modality to help children tell their narrative stories of experiencing abuse and trauma and their path to healing and recovery. Steinberg specializes in work with children, adults, and families and particularly in the areas of abuse, trauma, attachment, anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues. In recent years, his practice has expanded in addressing mental health issues with children who have autism spectrum disorders. He also provides clinical consultation, training, supervision, and workshop presentations. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology through George Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1996. Additionally, Steinberg is an avid amateur photographer, outdoors enthusiast, and overall sports nut.
In 2015, What Potential, If Any, Does Family Photography Have To Help Boost A Child’s Self-Esteem Today?
Among the experts interviewed there was a clear consensus that family portraits are a positive for helping children develop self-esteem.
“It’s as important if not more important,” says David Krauss, a licensed psychologist from Cleveland, Ohio. “I think it is really important to show a family as a family unit. It is so helpful for children to see themselves as a valued and important part of that family unit. A photographer’s job is to create and make the image look like a safe holding space for kids where they are safe and protected. Kids get it on a really simple level.”
Krauss is one of the earliest pioneers in using people’s personal photography and family albums to assist in mental health counseling and therapy. He co-authored a book with Fryrear titled “Photo Therapy and Mental Health” in 1983 that is considered a founding text for the use of photography in therapy.
“Family photography lets children learn who they are and where they fit. They learn their genealogy and the the uniqueness of their own family and its story. When a child sees a family portrait with them included in the photograph they say to themselves: ‘These people have me as part of what they are, that’s why I belong here. This is where I come from.’”
Judy Weiser, licensed psychologist
“It lets children learn who they are and where they fit,” says Judy Weiser. a psychologist, art therapist and author based out of Vancouver. “They learn their genealogy and the the uniqueness of their own family and its story. When a child sees a family portrait with them included in the photograph they say to themselves: ‘These people have me as part of what they are, that’s why I belong here. This is where I come from.'”
Weiser has spent more than 20 years using all manner of personal photography to assist in the treatment process of her clients. She is considered by many to be the foremost authority on these treatment techniques, called PhotoTherapy. To learn more you can also check out the Facebook group for PhotoTherapy and Therapeutic Photography Techniques.
When It Comes To Having The Greatest Positive Impact For Your Child, Which is Better, Digital Images or Paper Prints?
Obviously, rather than print and display family photographs, families are increasingly sticking to enjoying the images in a digital form, be it a mobile device, facebook or laptop. But does an image on a tablet, computer screen or social media site have the same impact for helping families boost a child’s self-esteem?
“My bias is very simple. I think they (family photographs) should be on the wall,” says Krauss.
“I am very conservative about self-esteem and I think placing a family photo someplace in the home where the child can see it every day without having to turn on a device or click around on a computer to find it really hits home for that child this sense of reassurance and comfort. They have a certainty about them and a protecting quality that nurtures a child. It let’s them know where they are in the pecking order and that they are loved and cared for,” says Krauss.
He recommends having photographs of that child with their family placed in the child’s bedroom so it can be among the last things they see before sleep and the first thing they may see before beginning their day.
“It says we love you and care about you. You’re important,” says Krauss.
The importance of printed photographs displayed in your living space was echoed by other experts.
“My personal and clinical bias is there is something very powerful in touching your fingers to an actual print,” says Craig Steinberg, a licensed psychologist who works with children ages five through 13 near Eugene, Ore. “Touching the photograph where a face is smiling or the shoulders, it is the same thing as touching a book when you read it. There’s a lot of stimulation of the brain when you have that sensory experience. That is a bit lost in the move to digital. You are touching a keyboard, mouse or a touchscreen but you are not touching the image.”
“My bias is very simple. I think they (family photographs) should be on the wall. I am very conservative about self-esteem and I think placing a family photo someplace in the home where the child can notice it every day without having to turn on a device or click around on a computer to find it really hits home for that child this sense of reassurance and comfort. They have a certainty about them and a protecting quality that nurtures a child. It let’s them know where they are in the pecking order and that they are loved and cared for.”
David Krauss, licensed psychologist
“Displaying photos prominently in the home sends the message that our family and those in it are important to one another, and we honor the memories we have experienced,“ says Cathy Lander-Goldberg, a licensed clinical social worker and a professional photographer in St. Louis, Mo. “I also think it’s wonderful to display photos of family friends and of children with other groups they belong to such as and his or her soccer team. I don’t think the size of the photos matters though. Although larger prints such as 8”x10”s are less likely to be overlooked,”
Lander-Goldberg is the director of Photo Explorations, which offers workshops to girls and women using portrait and journaling for self-reflection. She uses therapeutic photography in her St. Louis practice.
“Technology has definitely changed our relationship to photographs. Having the family portrait on your phone or facebook page allows for so many more people to see the images, which can be validating for the child. However, I think the immediate sharing makes it less of a priority to get prints made to display and to have as keepsakes in the home and for generations to come,” says Lander-Goldberg.
Weiser cautions us not to get too hung up whether a photograph is printed, hanging on a wall or on a computer screen. “Where the photos are doesn’t matter as much as the reasons they are taken, kept or talked about,” says Weiser. “What happens when you look at them, share them and enjoy them is where the opportunities are to help your child.”
What Specifically Can A Parent Do To Help Foster Self-Esteem With Family Photographs?
Weiser and the other experts I talked with recommend taking a more inclusive role with family photographs, be it personal snapshots or professional images. Weiser suggests letting children develop their own digital albums from the images they selected. A family can use a digital frame in which the child and their siblings can take turns displaying their favorite family image in it.
She recommends parents take time to look at images together with children and ask questions about what the child sees, what they like or don’t like about the images. This let’s them share their thoughts, feelings and stories the images may or may not evoke from the child.
Another opportunity to help your children benefit from the photography experience is to have them participate in the process before the portraits are created. Have them pick out an outfit, get their ideas for locations and where they would want to have a portrait created.
If you’re hiring a professional seek out a photographer who approaches the photography as an open-ended process that welcomes collaboration and input from the family on locations, clothing, poses and all the little parts that make up a portrait.
For example, mom and dad can have their outfit preferences but it may be o.k. to have an outfit change that is purely what that child wants to wear. It may create a really exciting experience for the children to allow them to pick what they want to do and have input into the entire photography experience.
The experts I interviewed believe this gives children a sense of power and control which assists the self-esteem potential of the portraits.
In What Ways Can Photography Help Adolescent Children?
After puberty begins children start building independence from their parents and family. Their sense of family is less important and their peer group becomes even more important. So family portrait photographs showing the child as a part of a family unit spanning several generations doesn’t have nearly the impact.
But photography can still help an adolescent’s development. Having a teenager make their own photographs, be it with a camera or the phone, and having regular conversations with them about who, what, where, when and why of the photographs they took is a great way to help develop their sense of self.
Making time to sit down and ask the one-ended questions about the photographs fortifies communication between parent and child at an age where communication can be strained and difficult. It also lets an adolescent sort through their own feelings about themselves, their changing bodies and how they relate with the world outside of their family.
“What they are making pictures of is interesting to see,” says Steinberg. “the camera is a powerful tool that can help a child get a sense of what they see and how they fit in. It can give them a different perspective on all of it than what they thought.”
But even when working a professional photographer, giving preteens and teenagers the opportunity to have input on what they want to do for a family photograph before the photographs are made, during the photography, and what they want to do with the photographs in terms of albums, slideshows or home decoration.
“With teenagers, what I would do is have them select where they want to be in the photo, the posing. Let them have a sense of power and control,” says Steinberg.
Naturally, family photography of your child isn’t a magic wand for your child’s self-esteem. “It doesn’t win the battle but it gives you useful ammunition in the battle of creating self-esteem and identify,” Krauss says.
“The child doesn’t know they are learning but they are learning all the values of their family,” Weiser says. “But for a child, in terms of self- esteem, knowing they are part of a bigger picture gives them some security. Learning where they come from, they learn how different can they be before they are no longer ‘part of the family.’ They see where they fit.”
Editor’s note: I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to the wonderful experts who set aside some of their valuable time to provide their input.