Can Music Therapy Help Children With Emotional Problems?

Music therapy is a clinical intervention that uses the healing power of music to provide emotional, psychological, cognitive, social, and communicative support to people who need it.1 Children especially stand to benefit. According to the British Association for Music Therapy, music therapy provides children with a therapeutic and interactive opportunity to express themselves better and this improves their cognitive, emotional, and physical development. It can help them develop concentration and listening skills, build self-esteem and resilience, explore their feelings and thoughts, and improve self-awareness and social skills.2

This support is much needed by children with emotional problems who may lag behind others of their age where cognitive and social milestones are concerned. The term “severely emotionally disturbed” (SED) refers to diagnoses of a range of conditions including affective disorders (e.g. depression), anxiety disorders (e.g. phobias), behavior disorders (exhibiting disruptive behaviors seen in conditions like oppositional defiant disorder), attachment disorders (where children don’t form normal attachments to people, as is seen in reactive attachment disorder), autism, and schizophrenia.3 Children with emotional problems usually have a shorter attention span, and they may have trouble concentrating. Some find it difficult to cope with the negative emotions associated with a trauma they’ve suffered. They can also be exceedingly impulsive and display behavioral problems.


Here’s why music therapy can be used and how it can bring out positive change in children.

1. Non-Threatening And Playful

Music therapy is innately inviting and non-threatening. Playing an instrument or repeating a riff seems more like fun than therapy. Most children like and respond to music and it can be a safe medium for a child to explore a range of issues from low self-esteem to grief or abandonment. And you don’t really need any special musical abilities to benefit from music therapy.4


2. Doesn’t Need Words

Many emotionally troubled children also have developmental and cognitive difficulties. They often lack the skills required for therapies that use verbal communication. Also, children who have been traumatized may be reluctant to talk about the issue directly; sometimes they may just be too young to put things into words properly. Music therapy, which uses nonverbal and indirect communication, can, therefore, be particularly effective.5

3. Goes Right To The Heart Of It

In the brain, music can bypass the parts involved in planning and language and go right to the limbic system which is associated with emotions. It is also thought to stimulate the functioning of the right brain which is involved in feelings, particularly sadness.6


4. Promotes Trust

Music can set the stage for a child to develop a meaningful bond with an adult. Many children with emotional problems experience disruptions in important relationships (for example, children who have been placed in foster care) and may have trouble trusting others. Music therapy can help build trust and social skills and enables a music therapist to connect with a child. This can be a powerful foundation for therapeutic work.7

Music therapy has been found to be useful in three broad areas in children with emotional problems.


1. Manage Emotions

Music therapy can lower tension, improve tolerance for frustration, and instill a sense of security.8 It can help children handle difficult emotions like grief. One study compared the effects of social work and music therapy on children who had behavioral problems and showed symptoms of grief. Children in the social work group showed a decrease in behavioral problems but not in their grief symptoms while those in the music therapy group showed a reduction in their behavioral problems as well as grief symptoms.9

2. Aids Communication

Music can be used to project what you want to say about yourself. It makes you more creative and improves your ability to express yourself. Music can help start a conversation and keep it going, and can be useful in communicating feelings about difficult things like abuse. Research has shown that music therapy can significantly improve communication skills in autistic children.10


3. Improves Social And Behavioral Aspects

Research has found that simply introducing background music can help reduce hyperactivity in children.11 Under the Positive Education Program (PEP) of Cleveland, music therapy has been used to reintegrate emotionally disturbed children into regular classrooms.12So if you have a child who doesn’t play well with others or is fidgety, a little music might help. Studies have also found music therapy to be beneficial in improving social interaction in adolescents with autism.13

What’s The Process Like?

Music therapy aims to change behavior as well as explore underlying issues. Individual treatment plans are developed after considering the child’s needs and abilities. Music therapists may incorporate singing or playing of instruments into therapy. They may also use improvisation, song writing, and analysis of lyrics. A session usually lasts between 30 to 60 minutes and can have individual as well as group formats. The skills acquired during therapy can then be taken and used in the outside world; for instance, learning to articulate things during therapy can translate to better communication with parents, friends, and, eventually, the larger world.14