Using Music Therapy to Soothe a Child's Anxiety & Hyperactivity

By Cara Batema

One cannot question author and neurologist Oliver Sacks’ appreciation of music when he writes, “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears — it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear.” In his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Sacks uncovers links between music and neurology and how music can be used as medicine; in his own words, “music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” Music has the power to both stimulate and soothe, which are two fundamental tenets of music therapy for children.

What is Music Therapy?

Music as therapy is nothing new, as stories of its use date back to antiquity. However, now music therapists are trained to implement evidence-based approaches to reach therapeutic goals, including managing stress, improving communication and expressing emotions, all of which are pertinent for children with anxiety and hyperactivity. You might see music therapists pop up in schools, hospitals or mental health programs as a part of well-rounded care. Consider music therapy as a supplement to other therapies given that countless anecdotes and research studies indicate its efficacy. Additionally, music therapy for children is non-invasive, hands-on and engages the whole brain.

Tools for Music Therapy

Music therapists employ a variety of instruments. They might use guitars or keyboards to play and sing along with, as well as kid-friendly instruments like drums, shakers, xylophones, tambourines or sticks. These instruments are intuitive and kids can play them without really needing to be taught how. Therapists might also stream music or use iPods. If you’re implementing some music activities at home, you might want some of these items on hand.

Using Music for Stimulation

Most children are naturally interested in music, and time spent doing musical activities is often seen as an enjoyable activity rather than a chore. Hyperactive children have difficulty focusing, but introducing music or an instrument is an immediate way to grab their attention. For example, a music therapist might grab a drum and play the rhythm of a verbal direction they give; playing the drum with simple phrases encourages a child to listen. If you don’t have a drum at home, use an overturned pot and wooden spoon.

While some children concentrate best with no background music, many kids with hyperactivity require a bit of extra stimulation to fire neurotransmitters in the brain. Turn off the television and try an advertisement-free playlist instead. Don’t be afraid to ask your child what they like — songs you might not expect to help with focus could actually be the most familiar or favorite for your kid.

Consider music activities as a part of your daily routine to improve your child’s confidence, which also reduces anxiety or inattention. For example, learn words to a new song together or play a call-and-response game on a drum where you take turns to play and mimic a beat. These types of activities are encouraging, and once your child masters a particular skill, they will feel a sense of pride and achievement. These tools are also great ways to practice concentration, taking turns, self-control and foster excitement for learning.

 

Using Music for Relaxation

Another general goal of music therapy for children is to promote mindfulness and relaxation. Perhaps the most obvious use of music is through a guided meditation with soothing background music; this music is often slow and does not have an obvious beat, like something you could bob your head to. Music is this realm can include classical pieces, such as solo piano, string quartets or harp pieces by composers like Mozart, or possibly ambient music, such as that by Brian Eno. However, soft and slow music is certainly not the only kind you can use. While it will take trial and error, create a playlist of tunes your child finds relaxing. Try a classical, pop or classic rock radio station to see if any of those styles strike a chord.

 

Create another playlist that will take your child from a place of anxiety or hyperactivity to a calmer state. This kind of playlist works by meeting your child where they’re at in a given moment, so it might begin with fast-paced music mimicking their heartbeat, or loud like the many thoughts running through their brain. After matching that mood, the songs gradually change their tempo, or speed, and have fewer instruments or words. You’ll notice your child adjust to the new music. If you need to lull your child to sleep, you can try singing soft lullabies or use pre-recorded music. According to a study for Mindlab International, the song “Weightless” by Marconi Union was labeled the most relaxing tune and reduced anxiety in study participants by 65 percent. The musicians who created the song consulted sound therapists to arrange rhythms and harmonies to slow a listener’s heart rate.

In addition to music listening, try some hands-on activities to encourage calmness. For example, let your child dance freely to a song or make up a dance routine together. Write a song together you can implement in your daily routine, such as a tune about getting ready for school. Your child will appreciate the ritual, and focusing on the song and activity at hand might help calm their nerves. If your child struggles with social anxiety, consider signing up for a music class: music is non-threatening and fun, so even kids with anxiety can often break through their initial fear in a group setting.

Another fantastic way to use music is as a means of expression. For example, use a keyboard or drum and ask your child to play what “sad” sounds like or other emotions. Or, ask them to play the emotion they feel at that moment while you try to describe how you think they feel based on their performance. Encourage a reversal of negative emotions by asking your child to play the opposite of that feeling.

Music is a powerful tool for calming a mind that is always running. Almost all children respond to music, so it makes the most sense for making musical activities a part of your daily routine. Take it from music lover and neurologist Oliver Sacks — music is more than a pastime or something for special occasions. It is as essential as proper nutrition and should be a staple of everyday life.

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher, and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs, and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science, and health.

References:

1. Dolgun, Omur B. Music Therapy in ADHD and Autism. IOSR Journal of Humanities And Social Science, http://www.iosrjournals.org/iosr-jhss/papers/Vol.%2023%20Issue7/Version-9/L2307099096.pdf
2. Flavin, Brianna. Music Therapy Strikes a Chord with Kids: How and Why You Should Take Advantage. Rasmussen College, https://www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/education/blog/music-therapy-strikes-a-chord-with-kids/
3. Hussey, David L. Music Therapy With Emotionally Disturbed Children. Psychiatric Times, http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/addiction/music-therapy-emotionally-disturbed-children
4. Rodgers, Anni L. Music Therapy: Sound Medicine for ADHD. ADDitude Mag, https://www.additudemag.com/music-therapy-for-adhd-how-rhythm-builds-focus/
5. Rook, Jenni. How to Create a Stress-Reducing Playlist. Anxiety, https://www.anxiety.org/music-therapy-stress-reducing-playlist
6. What is Music Therapy? American Music Therapy Association, https://www.musictherapy.org/