Introducing Helpful Ways for Parents to Support Music Therapy

Oliver Jacobson helps a young patient make music at the Benioff Children’s Hospital.

Oliver Jacobson helps a young patient make music at the Benioff Children’s Hospital.

Many parents with a child in the hospital feel hopeless, like there’s nothing they can do to help. Fortunately, for children and teens admitted to hospitals with music therapy programs, there are unique opportunities to express themselves creatively. Not all hospitals offer this form of non-invasive treatment, but the hospitals that we support, (UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco for example) have incredible services and music therapists who create customized plans for patients.

Kids and teens at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital have the opportunity to meet with music therapists, where their mentor will observe their needs, interests and behaviors. The therapist will also take into consideration any developmental or physical limitations the patient may have when creating goals for the patient, which may include learning simple chords on a guitar, writing lyrics or learning to enjoy listening to music. As part of the music therapy process, the therapist continually monitors, charts and shares the progress of their patient. It is important they update the goals and objectives of the child’s progress, working with family and doctors along the way to ensure they are on track to reach their medical needs.

While patients are learning to play an instrument, write music and listen to songs, as a parent, there is much you can do to get involved and encourage the creative process. Keep reading to learn how parents can get involved in their child’s music therapy.

4 Ways Parents Can Get Involved in Music Therapy

  1. Participate in Music Therapy:

The first step is getting involved! As the Music Therapy Association explains, “Music therapy can provide enjoyable yet purposeful activities and resources for families to share with their children. Families can learn to use music through meaningful play and nurturing experiences. Music therapy may serve as a positive outlet for interaction, providing fun activities that can include parents, siblings and extended family. Often music therapy allows a family to see a child in a new light as the child’s strengths are manifested in the music therapy environment.”

Along with providing services within the walls of a hospital, music therapists can go to a patient’s home if they are unable to travel. Not only does this provide a more comfortable environment for the child, but this offers parents a chance to get involved firs- hand and share the experience.

  1. Buy Songs:

Studies have shown that listening to music has been proven to reduce pain and lower stress levels in children and teens going through an illness. One use of music therapy is to help children post-surgery. A research study from Northwestern University and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago found that listening to music and audiobooks is a viable alternative to medication for reducing post-surgery pain in children.

Dr. Santhanam Suresh of the Northwestern University study stated, “Audio therapy is an exciting opportunity and should be considered by hospitals as an important strategy to minimize pain in children undergoing major surgery. This is inexpensive and doesn’t have any side effects.” The study found children ages 9 to 14 who hand undergone a variety of surgeries responded strongly to music from artists like Taylor Swift, Rhianna, Beyoncé, David Guetta and Selena Gomez. The children who listened to music reported that they felt less pain; the patients noted how they were feeling by pointing to a chart of images with happy faces to grimacing faces. Children, tweens and teens may identify with this type of music compared to adult contemporary music because it is a part of their teenage culture.

In another study by Cochrane Collaboration, music therapy was also successful in helping cancer patients struggling with their treatment options. Patients who listened to their own music or worked with a trained therapist experienced less anxiety and pain, and their mood and quality of life improved.

As mentioned above, listening to music is inexpensive, non-invasive and has no side effects. Purchasing an iPod and iTunes card for your child is one way to give them uninhibited access to music they can control. They have the chance to buy music that makes them feel a little better and, with their listening device, can play it anytime they like.

Streaming music services such as Pandora, Spotify or Tidal are also a free or low-cost option for providing a wide catalog of interesting music for your child (Note for Parents: Currently Taylor Swift is not on Spotify if that artist is important to your child).

  1. Learn to Play Music:
Keep music therapy programs going at home by getting the entire family involved.

Keep music therapy programs going at home by getting the entire family involved.

This is a fun, hands-on way to interact and engage with your child as they participate in music therapy. Whether you play an instrument so your child can sing along, or the two of you (or more – get the entire family involved) play instruments together filling a room with sound, playing with your child can connect you both.

If you think you’re too old to learn to play an instrument, you’re not! The Huffington Post spoke with Dr. Jessica Grahn, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at the Brain and Mind Institute and Psychology Department at Western University in Canada, who researches music, and James Lenger, the founder and president of Guitar Cities; they shared six reasons learning an instrument as an adult is easier than you think:

  • You already understand music from listening to it.

You go into learning to play an instrument with an advantage because you’ve spent your entire life listening to music. “When I’m teaching, with the adults, one of the first things I have them do is write out in the back of their lesson book every song that they’ve ever wanted to learn,” Lenger says. “Because of that exposure, when they’re learning something, they can relate it to music that they already know.” By already knowing songs you want to learn, you’ll be able to hear if what you’re doing sounds right or not. “[Adults] can understand the basic structures of music and how they’re inherent in a number of different songs they listen to,” he says. “With kids, it’s really tough to take an abstract approach like that.”

  • You have the discipline and focus to make yourself practice.

Unlike children after school, as an adult you know about practice, practice, practice. “The disadvantage that children have is that they are not so good at figuring out higher level rules and they don’t really know about how to get good at something,” says Dr. Grahn. “Whereas adults usually have some practice, either with sports or school, at saying, ‘Okay, I want to succeed at this so what must I do? I must practice.’” Additionally, you are likely paying for the lessons and instruments yourself, and know what a waste of money it could become.

  • You are much better equipped to tackle complicated, abstract concepts.
It’s never too late to learn to play an instrument and experience the benefits of music therapy.

It’s never too late to learn to play an instrument and experience the benefits of music therapy.

Adults have an easier time understanding abstracts over children. “You can explain to an adult, ‘Well, here are the rules of a scale and this is why these notes follow each other and these notes don’t follow each other,’” explained Dr. Grahn. “That might be much easier to remember because that’s a rule. They can then apply that rule in lots of different places in music, whereas children kind of have to learn it all by practice.”

  • You actually want to learn the instrument.

This is a critical part of mastering an instrument. Unlike children who have parents telling them to play or who feel obligated to continue for college scholarships, you are in charge of what you do. This level of autonomy is “probably the most important thing” according to Dr. Grahn. Just make sure you pick an instrument that you really want to play; as mentioned above, it is a waste of your own money if you don’t really want to learn.

  • Playing an instrument relieves stress.

Reducing and relieving stress from music therapy is one of the most important benefits of children and teens participating in the programs while in the hospital. Music is now recommended for adults to blow off steam from the day, too. “It’s just an escape from the office for a little bit,” Lenger says. “A big part of teaching isn’t just learning the guitar. Sometimes their first five minutes is coming in here and decompressing a little bit, and then we can go in and play the instrument for a while.” Lenger also noted that 90% of his clientele is adults coming to him at all hours of the day.

  • It’s exercise for the brain.

Dr. Grahn states that, as an adult, learning to play an instrument is a “brain trainer.” Learning something new keeps you sharp and alert longer into the aging process. Keeping your brain active can also lead to a higher quality of life and can stave off cognitive problems, including dementia.

  1. Be Present:

This may sound simple enough, but listening to your child’s song, whether it is sung or played on an instrument, can mean so much to them. For children and teens, it can be scary to express themselves creatively, but when they do, they are able to release emotions and improve mentally. There may not be a lot you can do for them medically, but your time and encouragement can make their time in the hospital a little better.

Getting Involved and Supporting Music Therapy

One of the best ways to support your child in a hospital run music therapy program is to get involved: participating in programs, buying songs, learning an instrument yourself or simply being there are all ways to join.

You can also get involved in music therapy by donating to our foundation so we can continue to support hospitals like the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco and bring new programs to other programs nationally and internationally. Visit our donations page today to make a contribution.

About the Peterson Family Foundation

The Peterson Family Foundation was founded in 2003 to enhance, restore and improve the quality of life for all human beings. Our primary mission is to seek out and support experts and institutions dedicated to enhancing and improving the lives of people dealing with illnesses requiring a stay at a medical institution by bringing music therapy to as many hospitals as possible. Learn more at our website or share your story with us.