When I was a teenager, I would stay awake in my room late into the night reading Dostoyevsky novels, writing bad poetry, and painting. I’m sure my parents were worried about all the alone time I spent listening to overwrought, angst-ridden music while staring at the ceiling, but I wasn’t sad. I’m just melancholic.
I was figuring out my inner state, sorting out questions of identity, and wrestling with the meaning of existence. My teen years were one long existential crisis. I’m sure to outsiders I was an amusing 16-year-old kid asking questions about life and death well beyond my wisdom or abilities to answer. I tried on all sorts of personalities and went through my share of phases. I became the walking definition of a mopey teenager.
Later, I joined a goth band and wore all black. I got my eyebrow pierced (this is probably when my parents really became concerned about me). I wore strange, oddball clothes from the thrift store as a sign of counter-culturalism and “rejection of capitalist materialism.” I thought that, if I carved out my own path and could be different enough from everyone else, I might find the solution to what was making me so melancholic.
No escaping melancholy
It turns out, though, there’s no escaping yourself. I’m still melancholic. Today, I prefer quiet, solemn, beautiful Masses. I continue to insist on writing bad poetry. I wrote a whole book about searching for beauty and how deeply I have been formed by it.
I think my parents are still worried about me, but I’m not sad, and the older I get the more I’m learning to turn my temperament into a strength.
In any case, I guess you could say the joke’s on me because I have a teenage daughter who acts just the way I did. We gave her a room in the attic where she happily spends large chunks of the day behaving like a starving artist. She paints, knits, and reads. Occasionally she comes downstairs to say hello to the family. Maybe she’s had an existential crisis or two. If not, probably soon. It’s a rite of passage for a melancholic.
What does it mean to be melancholic?
Parents of melancholics might worry that something is wrong with their child. This is because the wider world rewards extroverts and practical-minded go-getters. The popular kids in school are always the ones who are the life of the party, who love being around people and gain energy from social settings. Melancholics are the opposite. They’re introverts who disappear into the art room to paint. They don’t like school dances or parties and go home after school to read books that aren’t even required for homework. When parents witness this, they wonder if their child is sad or depressed. A melancholic rarely fits the typical image of a smiling, well-adjusted teen.
Nothing is wrong, though. At least, nothing is wrong because of the melancholy. I do think that melancholics have a more difficult transitional period during their teen years because, as a temperament, it exacerbates the teen angst that can be a natural part of the maturation process. Boundaries are being tested, mistakes are made, and parents are being closely questioned about everything they say or do. Melancholics take all of this quite seriously.
Melancholy is a form of sensitivity to the infinite. They seek meaning in everything. As Romano Guardini says, “the person seeks something, seeks it everywhere and passionately – something that he cannot find.” For this type of temperament, the teen years aren’t only a time of figuring out adulthood, it’s also a time of figuring out their place in the universe. That’s a lot.
It’s helpful for parents to understand some characteristics of the melancholic temperament so we can relate to our children better and assist in bringing out the best in them.
1GIVE THEM SPACE AND ALONE TIME
Melancholic children need plenty of personal space and alone time. When they retreat to their room, they aren’t rejecting the family, they simply need time to unpack their feelings, recharge, and reflect. They are quite sensitive to social interaction and, while they’re as social as anyone else, too much overwhelms them because they feel very deeply. Parent shouldn’t feel the need to push their melancholic child into every single activity. Pick your battles. Always remember, though, that melancholy people don’t always know what they want and, if parents can sometimes help them overcome their reluctance, they often enjoy the activity.
2TAKE THEIR EXISTENTIAL ANGST SERIOUSLY
I used to have a crisis once a week, at minimum. Melancholics go to extremes when it comes to figuring out life, their purpose, their thoughts about God, and so on. Looking back on how overwrought I was as a teenager, it’s kind of amusing. But at the time, if anyone had made light of my “deep thoughts” I would have been furious. It’s good to take our children’s concerns seriously while at the same time helping to shape those thoughts into healthy modes of thinking. They’ll ask a lot of probing questions. Some are challenging. Some may not seem all that important but, for some reason, to the child they are. They might read widely and absorb strange ideas. For instance, I went through a Russian existentialist phase, a Nietzsche phase, a goth phase, a heavy metal music phase, and many, many more. With a melancholic it’s always an adventure.
3THEY DON’T NEED YOU TO CHEER THEM UP
Melancholics don’t need artificial injections of energy to “cheer them up.” They probably don’t want you to gather round and sing happy birthday or make a fuss over them. They don’t want to be embarrassed or put in the spotlight. I think it’s important to respect that. We all have fun in our ways. Because they have an active inner life with unseen mental activity, over-stimulation isn’t helpful. I sit quietly in my chair to write and read for hour after hour. To an outside observer, maybe I’m wasting the afternoon, but my interior is a hive of thought and activity. I find interior activity energizing.
This is good advice for parents of all children, but in particular melancholics value deep conversation in a one-to-one setting and thrive on making emotional connections. As you listen, help them to relate their inner thoughts — which are often a ferment of suffering and nostalgia — to a desire for God. Direct their desire away from unhelpful, endless self-analysis and towards the search for beauty and transcendent good.
5THEY NEED A REAL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD
Model for your child what it looks like to place ourselves at the service of the Almighty. In the absence of a strong religious identity, the knowledge that God made them, loves them, and wants to live forever with them in heaven, melancholics will try to create any other kind of meaning. They will obsess over musical lyrics, celebrities, authors, subcultures, or failing that, they’ll spiral into aimless depression. The strong desire for an eternal home is why melancholics are so nostalgic and sensitive to beauty, even if beauty causes a pain in their heart because the world cannot always be so beautiful. Melancholics want to wrestle with angels even if they emerge from the battle limping.
There’s definitely a balance that needs to be struck, because melancholic children are struggling to figure out their temperament, they feel very deeply. This is exacerbated by the usual growing pains of the teenage years. Parents can respect this but at the same time ought not indulge in it. Like all temperaments, melancholy can be a strength or a weakness. Parents can help their children develop the strengths, so the character their child builds on the temperament is self-aware, healthy, and happy.