We have all had the experience of getting home from an incredibly stressful day, our muscles tense, jaw clenched, and mind racing. We turn on quiet music, and soon the physical effects of stress lessen. We begin to relax. Our mind quiets and our pulse slows. Music has that calming power. Parents can use the magic of music to help their children relax and be calm, too.
Music is more than entertainment
Lisa Summer, director of Music Therapy at Anna Maria College in Paxton, teaches future music therapists, nurses, social workers, and psychologists how to use music in ways other than entertainment. Her students go on to use music for nonmusical goals with their patients and students, such as improving cognition, and developing fine and gross motor skills by using music to encourage movement.
While music therapists define a piece of music as either stimulative or sedative, Summer cautions parents to recognize that one type of music may be sedative for one person, but not for another. Very young children might find repetition of a simple song to be sedative. Hearing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” repeated over and over may not be relaxing for a parent, but it could be soothing for a child, she said.
Younger children are more likely to use music for stimulation, but most people learn to use music for calming by adulthood, she added. Parents can help condition children to the calming nature of music by considering how music is used in the home. When children are young, parents regulate the music and the emotional atmosphere. If a parent is using music in a very diverse way, such as singing while washing dishes and putting music on at quiet time, children pick up on the calming quality of the music by being in that environment. It is very healthy, said Summer, who explained that this atmosphere regulation can begin very early, simply with a parent softly singing to a baby.
“When we sing to a child, music becomes ingrained within the child's brain,” she noted. “Slow, relaxing sounds become ingrained. We become conditioned, and there is a kind of trust that is formed.”
As children grow, parents can offer exposure to different types of music and observe how the child responds. If the child becomes excited, the music is likely stimulative. With regular exposure and careful observation, parents will learn to recognize which music appears to calm or soothe a child.
Music and mindfulness
The ability for a child to recognize music as a tool for self-regulation and coping with stress is invaluable. According to Missy Brown, founder and creator of Deep Play for Kids studio in Fairfield, Conn., this skill is tied to mindfulness. Brown is a presenter at the famed Kripalu Center for Yoga in Stockbridge, an E-RYT (Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher), a RCYT (Registered Children's Yoga Teacher) and holds more than 11 yoga certifications, including many involving youth yoga education.
Music is crucial to her work.
“I feel like music, for our mind, is similar to a workout for our body,” she said. “Receptors in our brain are open to shifting based upon what we are hearing. Parasympathetic and nervous system pathways are all affected by music. Fast music can make us more awake and alert, slow music can quiet our mind and relax internal organs and muscles. It allows our pulse to slow down.”
For Brown, an important component of music's ability to help children calm is the use of fast, silly music to let them dance and burn off energy. Anxious and excited kids can use music to release energy at an appropriate time, instead of at bedtime.
Loud music can be used as a tool for teaching how to be calm because it demonstrates the importance of contrast. In one of her children's workshops, kids dance with finger lights to fun music in a freeze-dance game. When the music stops, the kids freeze and Brown asks them to put their hands on their heart or belly to notice their physical and mental reaction to the sound and activity. Brown uses music to help children build awareness of their breath.
For children with sensory challenges, there are appropriate times when louder, more active music can be played in a safe, predictable way. Kids can learn to respond to music, like drumming or dance music that is fun and lively, when it is played in an audibly controlled way. This may help them learn to be calmer in other loud settings.
All of Brown's work is sensory oriented because she believes that is how to meet children exactly where they are as individuals. These exercises cultivate mindfulness. When children learn to recognize how their bodies respond to different types of music, they are also learning to observe their body's reaction to stress factors and calming factors. This mindfulness, in time, will allow them to learn to use tools, such as music, for self-regulation and coping with stress.
Brown said she has repeatedly seen individualized evidence of the calming effect of music on children. She cites the example of children barreling down the hallway with excitement and running into her classroom. Brown explains that if she has quiet music on in the room, the children naturally lower their voices, slow their breathing, and calm their bodies.
Like Summer, Brown believes parents can create an atmosphere conducive to calm with quiet background music played in the home. She enjoys music by Dana Cunningham, Michael Jones, Todd Norian, and Cody Michaels. She recognizes music can be costly and is pleased that via iTunes, parents can buy one song at a time to assemble the perfect playlist for their family. Verizon FIOS customers can enjoy the Music Choice Soundscapes channel, which features 24-hour music by a variety of artists.
Brown also recommends CDs with nature sounds. She suggests sitting outside with your child on a spring or summer day when birds are active. Ask your child to sit quietly with you and listen to the sounds of birds. This quiet time to focus can have a calming effect. In winter, when the birds are quiet, a prerecorded CD of bird sounds can imitate nature and allow for a similar calming exercise. Other nature sounds to enjoy include ocean waves, trickling streams, chirping crickets and other night creatures, and even thunderstorms and rain showers. Your local library may offer these types of CDs.
By using these music tools regularly, parents help children train their minds to be calm.
“When the mind hears something calming and soothing and familiar,” Brown said, “your mind says, ‘Oh, I know what this is, it is time to relax.'”
CDs designed to calm kids
Sarah Freeman, owner of Upton-based Airy Melody Music, is a certified applied behavior therapist with experience working with children with autism. Airy Melody Music (airy-melody.com) offers guided meditations, stories, and music on CD and digital music files specifically designed to help children relax and fall asleep, including three CDs in Portuguese. Soothing titles like, “Dreaming of Ponies” and “Rainbows and Sunshine,” evoke thoughts for sweet dreams.
Peg S. lives in MetroWest Massachusetts with her husband and two children. (Her name is abbreviated at her request out of respect for her 11-year old son, who is adjusting to learning about his Asperger's diagnosis.) When the boy was about 8, Freeman began working with the family to help him develop impulse control, manage frustration, and learn to calm himself.
“My son had been getting frustrated with how difficult everything was,” Peg said. “One of the tools Sarah brought that worked well were her CDs. They are wonderful.”
Three years later, not only does Peg's son still use Freeman's CDs to help him calm, he now independently seeks out music when he is stressed. Freeman had suggested he have access to a portable music player as a calming tool.
“When I give him choices of what he wants to do to calm himself, more than half the time he chooses music as his tool of choice,” Peg said. “Ten to 15 minutes later, he is calm.”