We Are Family: Music therapy helps parent-child relations

It worked for Sister Sledge and it can work for your family too. A new Danish study suggests that music therapy can help parents and neglected children communicate better, both verbally and non-verbally. Moreover, parents noted that their children were less stressed out. “For children experiencing emotional neglect, music therapy can provide them with a chance to be heard and responded to in a safe, fun, and non-threatening context,” music therapist and lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia Kate Williams, who was not involved in the small trial, said. That explains why Captain von Trapp endeared himself to his seven children after Maria reintroduces music in the family.

Study leader Stine Jacobsen, head of the music therapy program at Aalborg University, told Reuters that her team enlisted 18 families with children aged 5-12 and employed interactive games in which parents and children alternated leading and following one another while a therapist supplied “a musical frame for the family to try and approach each other nonverbally through the music.” The socially dysfunctional, emotionally underdeveloped families were recruited from a residential family care center which is a last resort before removing children from their parents. Music therapy usually consists of a therapist, a parent and a child playing instruments, listening to and discussing music, or playing musical games together. And since musical skills are not required, it could be a career alternative for Justin Bieber.

In the study, published in the Journal of Music Therapy, nine child-parent duets were given the center’s standard treatment, and the other nine pairs were given 6-10 music therapy sessions. The therapists watched the interaction between parent and child; additionally, parents self-reported on their stress levels and parental relationship before treatment, and once again 16 weeks later. Parents in the music therapy group felt more enabled to communicate with and understand their children and were less stressed by and more empathetic to their children than those who were not given music therapy. “Engaging in music therapy with a trained therapist offers (parents) the chance to learn new skills in responding to children, and practice them in a live and real way,” said Williams, adding that it’s unclear how well the results will translate to the home environment, although the benefits are likely to linger after the sessions.

The researchers said these results are preliminary and a larger study is necessary. In the meantime, families can enjoy the soothing effects of music even without formal therapy, so take those earbuds off. “Singing together or singing for your infant or toddler can be a very intimate bonding activity and comes naturally for some families,” Jacobsen said. “The earlier you start interacting nonverbally with your child in a meaningful way the more you might see or feel the benefit.” And that’s how you solve a problem like Maria. 

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