(This post is not meant to address children who are clinically depressed. Please speak to a health care professional if you feel your child is depressed).
Then you should know exactly which children lean toward
inner reflection and are inclined to brood over things; these are
the melancholic children. It is not easy to give them impressions
of the outer world. They brood quietly within themselves,
but this does not mean that they are unoccupied in their
inner being. On the contrary, we have the impression that they
are active inwardly. – “Discussions With Teachers” Lecture One, Rudolf Steiner
Rudolf Steiner was not the first person to work with the ideas of the human temperaments; the Greek physician Hippocrates incorporated the four temperaments into his medical work and the temperaments have made their way into medicine and psychology since then. Rudolf Steiner linked the four temperaments to not only his ideas regarding the four fold human being, but also to the different developmental cycles of the human being. For example, he felt the early childhood years of birth through seven were a predominantly sanguine time.
When we look at children, I have spoken to many mothers who feel the predominant temperament of their child is melancholic. Many melancholic children have a particular physical body type – tall, slender, mournful eyes, a slow gait. They tend to think a lot about the past, themselves, and they have a good memory concerning things that happen to themselves. They tend to analyze, brood and have a strong attention to detail. Many times they are bothered by the idea of imperfection. I find many melancholic children in my own life can be rather inflexible, and when things do not happen according to the pictures or thoughts they have laid out, they can become extremely upset or angry.
Many times melancholic children seem to have a poor quality of relationships with others. These may be the children who have only a few good friends. They can be drawn into relationships if something strikes them as unjust or unfair; sticking up for the underdog is often part of a melancholic child’s connection and sympathy to another person’s pain and suffering.
Here is my area of caution after working with many families over the years: Please do not confuse the melancholic child with something else. I have talked to many mothers who felt their child was melancholic, but when I looked at the child in person and observed them and the family, it seemed to me that the whole family may have been in a stressful, rough patch that was feeding the child’s feelings that the world was not a good place and that the child was working with this sad, unjust feeling as projected from the mother or other attachment figure in the family. Once the family became stabilized, the child also stabilized. This is not true melancholia as a temperamental trait.
I have also seen videos of children with sensory issues whose parents were clearly worn out by a child’s behavior and sometimes the child would respond with complaining and brooding to try to arouse the parent’s attention and sympathy. This is a scenario too long and complicated to get into via electronic medium, but again, I don’t think that is a true melancholic child. That is a child trying to elicit attention and increased energy from a parent. The take away message is that if your own energy is really low, your child may be acting melancholic to try to arouse something out of you! We must always look to ourselves first.
And complaining does not always equal a melancholic child either. I think we have to look at the whole picture of the whole child. A child may complain and feel lonely through the nine year change, for example, but that is a developmental stage, but not true melancholia as a tempermental trait.
The way to work with a melancholic, as advised by many resources, is to listen carefully to the melancholic child’s deep and brooding thoughts and to tell them stories about others who have suffered or times of your own suffering in order to connect.
I think this works well in a classroom, and we can also use it in the home environment. However, I think there is something more that should predominate with a melancholic child in the home environment: we have to be careful to listen, but not be a captive stage for hours on end by long tales of the woe of the melancholic child. This can be a tricky balance! The melancholic child should not set the tone for the home; we should as parents set the tone for our house. In the home environment where we are with our children 24/7, it is important to demonstrate to the melancholic child how we protect our own emotional boundaries because this is an important aspect of modeling emotional health for this temperament type. We can carefully listen to our child and then say that we have certainly heard them, and that we will carry their thoughts with us whilst we go do the dishes or brush the dog. We can help engage these children in real work, and get them physically moving instead of wallowing in their own negativity. I find melancholic children often need more exercise and sometimes even more opportunities to be socially drawn out than they may be prone to want themselves. Melancholic children are often happiest being creative and reading, which is wonderful, but physical movement and community is very important for these children.
In my mind, this temperament also needs a strong religious and spiritual life as they grow into adolescence and adulthood in order to have something to hold onto. We want to balance these children and all four of the temperaments that are within them and within us all.