When talking to children about tragic events, understanding individual temperament can be a great help. In my earlier 9/11 post, I focused mainly on two important aspects for the parent:
- the fundamental need for some measure of self-possession and calm amidst outer events
- a level of honesty and clarity in speaking to the child about the events that is not the norm in our culture
Especially related to that second point — honesty and clarity for the child — I want to dive a bit deeper and look at the importance of knowing your individual child, and letting that understanding guide you with more specificity and nuance when navigating the delicate territory of tragedy with them.
One of the reasons that my book Parenting for Peace is based on principles (rather than rules, systems, or techniques) is that meaningful parenting guidance must allow for everyone’s uniqueness. What nurturance looks like to one child will feel like smothering to another; what presence feels like to one mother will feel like imprisonment to another.
A huge dimension of the parenting journey is to be led to ever deeper understandings and appreciation of just who your child is, apart from any other. While the possibilities of uniqueness are infinite, it is sometimes helpful to orient ourselves with the help of various mapping tools. Temperaments is one such tool.
What Are The Four Temperaments?
[This section features significant contributions from Bari Borsky, author of the upcoming book
Understanding Your Child – A Four Temperaments Guide for Effective Parenting]
The temperaments were first described by Hippocrates, the father of western medicine. He identified the fiery and willful choleric; the watery, laidback phlegmatic; the excitable, short-attention span sanguine; and the hypersensitive, inhibited melancholic. Hippocrates used these “humors” or temperaments as a way of explaining imbalance or illness in his patients.
In 18th century Europe, the “Age of Enlightenment” relegated the theory of the four temperaments to the realm of superstition. Thanks to the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, new interest in understanding the human psyche and soul blossomed during the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1919, with the creation of the first Waldorf School, Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher, instructed teachers in the use of the four temperaments as a tool for unlocking the mystery of each child’s personality. He taught them how an understanding of the four temperaments can help to develop harmony within the child. A great deal of what we know today about the four temperaments in children has come from careful observation by teachers in Waldorf schools.
Each of the temperaments is related to one of the four elements – earth, water, air and fire. Every child and every adult possesses all four temperaments, but in most cases only one or two will predominate. Understanding that childhood itself is a sanguine time of life, we should be mindful that some of its characteristics describe all children.
A child with a dominant melancholic temperament experiences inner suffering and senses loss and death more than the other three temperaments. This is the child whose feelings are always getting hurt, and whose body seems to lack energy. By recognizing and working with the melancholic temperament, parents and teachers can help this child to focus less on him/herself, and more on those around him/her, by consciously drawing the child’s attention to the pain and struggles of other people or animals. This will help the melancholic child to grow into a compassionate adult who is willing to help alleviate the suffering of others.
Children with phlegmatic as the dominant temperament have a tendency to be asleep to the outer world. They prefer to live in a feeling of inner comfort and don’t seem to exhibit much interest in the things or people around them. These children require special guidance so they can develop socially acceptable behavior, create friendships, and focus on tasks and projects beyond what is “comfortable and easy.” With proper attention, these children can grow into adults who find purpose in their ability to research deeply and carefully, and to think profoundly and strategically about any project they take on.
The sanguine temperament is social, chatty, and falls in love with every new interest that appears. These children need consistency and guidance in learning how to follow through and finish projects. They require a teacher or mentor who will instill in them the importance of loyalty and keeping one’s word. These children can grow into adults who can contribute to the world of fashion, design, the arts, sales and anything that requires interpersonal relationship skills.
The child who has choleric as the dominant temperament is fiery and will-filled. He needs adults who know how to work with his blazing energy without suppressing it. These children require someone to teach them how to control themselves, self-reflect, and be sensitive to the feelings of other people. Choleric children often grow into visionary business or political leaders, whose disciplined will forces are capable of guiding a company of soldiers or a company of business executives.
The most whimsical portraiture of the four temperaments is found in Winnie the Pooh’s four main characters: Pooh, the phlegmatic; Eeyore, the melancholic; Tigger, the choleric; and Piglet, the sanguine. If the four of them came to a boulder blocking the path, melancholic Eeyore, pulled earthbound with the ongoing search for the meaning of life, would sigh deeply: “That’s the story of my life.” The organized, consistency-loving phlegmatic Pooh would complain that “This isn’t supposed to be here — this isn’t how it should be,” and the airily light-hearted sanguine Piglet would cartwheel right over it: “This is fun!” The determined, fiery choleric Tigger would kick it out of the way so they could all get on with it.
As a parent as well as a counselor of parents, I’ve found the temperaments of great help because they illuminate fundamental needs (and the flip-side of needs, stressors), which is essential parental information. You can imagine, for example, how knowing a phlegmatic child cannot stand being hurried, while a choleric child thrives on quick results, is a boon for the ease of daily life!
Let Temperament Help You Know What To Say in Hard Times
Writes Bari Borsky, “To effectively address your child’s fear, consider speaking to their temperament”:
Sanguine children especially absorb the fears of their playmates, classmates or other family members. Be a warm, loving, and most important, calm authority figure for them. “Something bad happened out there, but we are together, we are safe, and I love you.”
Choleric children never want to show they are afraid and may respond to fear by acting out in anger. Wait until the temper calms down before talking to him or her about the cause of their outburst. In times of stress or crisis give the choleric child something constructive and meaningful to do. This is a healthy outlet for their abundant energy.
Phlegmatic children are quiet introverts who dislike having their routine changed. Calmly explain enough facts of the situation to assure them that they are safe, and make every effort to keep their routine as normal as possible – regular meal times and bed times allow the phlegmatic child to feel secure. Let them know that someone is taking care of them.
Melancholic children are also introverts, are extremely sensitive, and can become withdrawn when frightened. These youngsters will feel like their world is collapsing around them during a family crisis, and because they take everything so personally, they think it is their fault (unless it’s an event distant from their lives, in which case they’re more inclined to remain remote from it). Validate your child’s feelings (“if this happened to me, I would feel the same way you do”), and explain just enough facts so they understand they didn’t cause the situation.
Reflecting on 9/11 Eleven Years Later
Part 1 of this post began with my story of our daughter Eve and how on her very first day of waking up by her self with a clock radio, it wasn’t classical music but early 9/11 coverage that she woke to. While writing the post I called Eve to discuss her recollections of 9/11, something we hadn’t discussed in the years since.
I discovered an astonishing thing: She did not remember the entire clock radio incident! Neither does she remember her father talking briefly — with directness and clarity but in general terms without much detail — to her about it that evening. Eve’s memory of her ten-year-old impressions of 9/11 is of “this devastating thing that happened” and how it made everyone really sad as they thought about it and talked about it. She also recalls it seeming “so big yet so removed, kind of like it was a movie, that happened ‘over there in New York,’ and it was very unconnected to me.”
What I didn’t realize back then was, as a melancholic child, she had a tendency to carry the weight of the world on her small shoulders, and maybe this was just too heavy — the direct intrusion of the sounds of tragedy into her own bedroom, her own sleep. Perhaps these moments went somewhere deep inside and “hid.”
“I think from a psychological point of view you are correct,” point out temperaments specialist Bari Borsky, “about the whole thing being too big for her ten year old soul. But I would also argue — and this is the whole point of your prior post — that you and John didn’t carry ‘drama’ and ‘scary’ energy for Eve to pick up, and therefore the whole incident would naturally be experienced, and remembered, as remote.”
“Melancholics don’t like change because it means something is ending (a metaphoric death). Obviously you made her feel safe enough that she didn’t believe something in her life was about to change, and essentially her life didn’t change because of the incident, so she doesn’t remember the details.”
Eve does rather vividly remember going to school that morning and watching as one of her (choleric) classmates was “really riled up” as she kept talking about it. Eve’s impression was that this classmate was getting a kind of energy from the drama of it all: “Did ya hear what happened?? Did ya hear what happened?? It’s so horrible! The Twin Towers got blown up and they fell down and they’re never getting back up again…”
This was surely the child whom the teacher asked to clap the dust out of the erasers. And on life went…
About Marcy Axness
I'm the author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers," and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I'm delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I'm happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I'm offering "A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool."