Melanie Klein’s Play Therapy

By Jaime Seltzer

Melanie Klein was born Melanie Reizes to Moriz and Libussa in 1882. Melanie was the youngest of four children, and as such was made a bit of a pet by her older siblings: her eldest brother, Emmanuel, and her sister Sidonie were especially fond of Melanie, and made sure she was well-educated at home. Emmanuel also introduced her to his more intellectual friends, partly for the sake of her education and partly in hopes she would find a good husband.

Sidonie became ill with scrofula, an infectious disease incurable at the time, but continued to teach Melanie languages until she died at age eight. The loss affected Melanie deeply.
At age sixteen, Melanie passed her entrance exams in order to study psychiatric medicine, but at seventeen, she met Arthur Stevan Klein, her second cousin and future husband. As was expected of her, she dropped all medical aspirations when she became engaged, and never completed her degree.

Melanie learned to observe children through play (‘play therapy’); so when a psychologist asks a child to draw or play with toys in order to better understand their psychological state, they are following in Klein’s footsteps.

Then, Melanie’s favored remaining sibling, Emmanuel, died when she was twenty of what appears to be an overdose of morphine or cocaine. He had been roaming the Mediterranean aimlessly for several months when Melanie learned he had perished of ‘heart failure’.

Melanie and Arthur married and began to have children, but the grief and loss in Melanie’s life pursued her; Arthur’s job required that the young family pick up and move often, which did not help the intellectual Melanie find confidantes easily, and she suffered from severe depression in her second pregnancy. She missed her family and her old life, and often took trips away to visit friends and remind herself of happier times, but she only grew more and more depressed and anxious.

Finally, the family settled in Budapest, where Melanie found kindred spirits in Arthur’s sister and Klara, who was related to the family through marriage. Melanie found solace in Klara, spending every summer with her from then on.

Then, Melanie became pregnant for a third time, to her horror. The hormonal depression returned with a vengeance. At the same time, war broke out in Europe, and Arthur was called into service. Melanie’s mother, who had been living with her family up until this point, quickly sickened and died that same year. Shortly thereafter, her own eldest son passed away and her marriage, long in trouble, finally dissolved.

Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein and her card from Women in Science.

Melanie sought help, this time from a student of Freud. She became fascinated with psychoanalysis, and attended a reading of one of Freud’s papers. Soon, she was engaging in psychoanalysis of children – which no one had ever tried, before – starting with her own. Melanie learned to observe children through play (‘play therapy’); so when a psychologist asks a child to draw or play with toys in order to better understand their psychological state, they are following in Klein’s footsteps. She collected her observations and wrote a paper which she presented to Budapest’s Psychological Society, and was accepted as a member.

Somewhat unfortunately for Melanie, Anna Freud began developing a model of child psychology around the same time, and Anna had the Freud surname going for her. Soon, Melanie’s work began to be viewed as ‘unorthodox’ and not part of the mainstream. When Melanie and her children moved to England, however, she found that her work was far better-received there than in Hungary.

Klein’s ideas were so revolutionary that schools sprang up to teach her techniques, which spread throughout the world. Even today, Klein’s psychoanalytic style is still considered its own, distinct entity.

References:
Cherry, K. (n.d.). Melanie Klein Biography. In Profiles of Major Thinkers in Psychology. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/profilesofmajorthinkers/p/klein_bio.htm
Donaldson, G. (2002). Melanie Klein (1882-1960). The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, 29(3). Retrieved from http://www.apadivisions.org/division-35/about/heritage/melanie-klein-biography.aspx
Melanie Klein. (2010). In Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society. Retrieved from http://www2.webster.edu/~woolflm/klein.html

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