For teens, whether they’re listening in the car, in their bedrooms, with friends or alone, music is often a constant companion. You can work with your teen to take this strong connection to music one step further. As a music therapist at Cincinnati Children’s, I’d like to offer the following ideas for how parents can use music to positively impact your child’s mental health.
Why Is Music a Good Way To Support Teens?
- Music listening feels natural and intuitive to teens. Many teenagers have strong, emotional ties with music and are highly motivated by musical interactions. You can support and empower your child by more intentionally using a tool that they are already interested in and using.
- Music is budget friendly. It’s accessible, and it’s easily personalized and individualized. There’s music out there that can fit anyone’s needs, interests, cultural backgrounds or belief systems.
- Mental health can often be complex and require a multifaceted approach to address it. While music is not a replacement for things like medication or counseling, it can be one more tool in your family’s toolkit to promote healing and wellness.
Ways That Music Can Have a Positive Impact on Your Teen’s Mental Health
Here are some ways you can use music to support your child’s mental health:
- For self-expression. Teens who are struggling to communicate their feelings may be able to more easily point to a song that says what they can’t quite put into words. While they might not be able to name what they’re going through, they could find a song that expresses it well.
- To reduce isolation. Listening to music that they relate to can help your teen feel like someone else understands what they have been through and are feeling. While your teen might listen to music while alone, it actually can decrease their sense of isolation if they feel like someone else understands their worldview.
- For mood elevation. For teens who are feeling depressed, listening to certain music can help their mood start to be a little brighter.
- To help release pent-up emotions. If a teen relates strongly to what’s happening in a song, they can get a vicarious release of anger, anxiety or other emotion they’re experiencing.
- As a positive distraction away from negative thoughts. Getting stuck in negative thought patterns can be a symptom of different kinds of mental health challenges. Music can be used as a way to break out of that.
Music Listening Strategies To Use at Home
Here are several approaches to try with your teen to help them explore what they’re going through. Some may work better than others for your family. Start with whatever you’re most comfortable with and adapt them to your relationship with your teen.
1. Don’t make assumptions about your child based on the music they’re listening to.
The meaning people take away from music is incredibly subjective. Instead of assuming what your child is feeling based on the music they’re listening to, it can help to ask open-ended questions to explore what they’re connecting with in the music. Try questions like:
- What makes a song an important one to you?
- What do you relate to in this song?
- What lyrics stand out to you in this song, and what makes the lyrics meaningful to you?
- How does listening to this song impact you?
Sometimes it can be easy for us as adults to put our own meaning on songs, especially ones that have more provocative lyrics. But your teen might be getting something totally different from it.
It can be tempting to want to change or set limits on a child’s music listening—maybe their music doesn’t match your values. But that might do more harm than good. Approaching music listening with openness can be a great way for parents to better understand their child’s perspective.
2. Try to be accepting and nonjudgmental about your child’s musical choices.
It’s developmentally appropriate for teens to put up walls and rebel against parents as they work to form their own identity. We know that’s a huge developmental milestone that happens during adolescence. Music preference is often a way that teens will put up those walls.
Many times, teens specifically listen to music that’s different from what their parents like. They’re trying to distinguish themselves as a different individual than you. If you attempt to change or criticize your child’s musical tastes, it might increase those walls and might make them less willing to open up with you.
Instead, recognize that these differences are a normal part of adolescence and accept that your child’s music tastes are different than yours. Doing so can lead to more open conversations with your child.
3. Acknowledge that it might not be all about the lyrics.
Sometimes when we as adults are unfamiliar with music, and we don’t have our own meaning to attach to it, we jump quickly to the lyrics. But that may not be an important part of the meaning that your child is attaching to the song.
A teen’s attachment to a song can vary widely. Maybe they’ve listened to that song with friends, and it brings back good memories of them and feeling connected with other people. Or it might be that the beat of the song is really fun and invigorating; they may not even be aware of what the words are about, because they’re focused more on the musical sounds.
There are a lot of different meanings that can be attached to a song. A song that might sound extreme to you could have an entirely different meaning to your teen. (Remember, the Beatles were considered extreme when they first appeared on the music scene!)
4. Encourage your teen to share a song that they relate to or that expresses how they’re feeling.
This can serve as a conversation starter and can give you a better idea of where your child is emotionally and what kinds of issues or feelings they’re dealing with. If your child is seeing a mental health professional and is feeling stuck in therapy, this can be a good way to break through stagnancy with a therapist.
5. Suggest your teen create a playlist that moves from one emotion to another.
It’s quite likely your teen already has created playlists to listen to based on their mood or activity. From seasonal to mellow to upbeat, playlist themes are just about endless.
Another approach to a playlist is one that gradually shifts from one type of music to another. If you ask an adolescent who’s depressed to listen to a happy song right away, that generally is going to have an opposite effect on their mood. They’re going to be irritated with that because it’s not validating the feeling that they’re having.
Instead, suggest creating a playlist that starts with music that validates your teen’s current feeling, and then gradually shifts to music that becomes a little lighter over the course of the playlist. That’s where mood elevation can happen. With a playlist like this, teens can slowly but steadily move away from negative thoughts and feelings as they continue listening.
6. Encourage your teen to explore other types of musical expression.
If your teen is receptive to the approaches above, you might also suggest songwriting, which can be especially accessible and appealing to teens. For teens who are looking to delve more into self-expression and don’t necessarily have a strong musical background, a good starting point could be to take a song that they already know and rewrite the words to fit their life better.
This can be a nice bridge from music listening into more original creation and expression.
Risk Factors To Be Aware Of
Music can be unhelpful or even harmful in certain situations. Keep these things on your radar:
Music can be can be unhelpful or harmful when…
- It is a trauma trigger. If a teen has a trauma history, certain music can bring those memories back up. This can include music that was associated with the time of the trauma, music that has lyrics that relate back to the trauma, or music by a particular artist that a teen connects to a traumatic time or event.
- It increases ruminations or negative feelings. Sometimes teens find music that validates negative feelings, and they stay there. If you notice this in your child, refer to tip #5 above about creating a playlist that gradually moves from negative to more positive feelings.
- It is not appropriately selected for the context. When music isn’t appropriate for the context (for example, playing upbeat music for someone who is feeling depressed), it can create or increase feelings of irritability, agitation, anxiety, or being overwhelmed. The same thing is true with non-preferred music. There’s a time and a place to explore non-preferred music, but in the middle of a mental health crisis may not be that time. As a parent, be aware of music fitting your teen’s mood.
Music therapists are trained professionals who can help teens harness the power of music for healing and wellness. At Cincinnati Children’s, our music therapists use music to help children who are inpatients meet treatment goals and cope with stress, fear and anger.
If you think your child could benefit from music therapy services, there are music therapists in the community who provide professional help on an outpatient basis. Use the following resources to find a music therapist near you:
- American Music Therapy Association: How to Find a Music Therapist
- Certification Board for Music Therapists: General Contact Form
To hear two Cincinnati Children’s music therapists talk more about how this type of therapy can benefit kids of all ages, listen to this episode of the Cincinnati Children’s Young and Healthy podcast.