In music therapy this month at The Whole Learning School, students are focusing on recognizing and expressing emotions. The way that music can impact emotion can be very helpful for children who struggle with special needs. Music can help them express emotion when words are not enough.

It can also support and validate emotion when a child has only a vague idea of what they are feeling. Because children’s verbal abilities are not as developed as adults’, music can offer an additional resource for children to connect to their own emotional states and then to share this with people in their lives.  A lack of language to express emotions can be even more pronounced for children with special needs due to physical and cognitive challenges and increased emotional stress. Using music to help children explore emotions can lead to clearer communication and increased ability to tolerate and regulate feelings because the child has a way to connect his or her internal experience with the external world.

To understand more about how music impacts emotions, take a moment to picture these classic film and TV scenes and the music that accompanies them: the shower scene in Psycho, the shark approaching in Jaws, or the Smurfs dancing through their opening song. All of these scenes rely heavily upon the impact that music has on emotion and they reach us various levels of cognition and awareness. This is because when we listen to music, the elements of music: tonality, instrumentation, tempo, etc. combine with our cultural knowledge, memories, and associations to make music a powerful tool for eliciting and supporting emotions. Understanding our personal responses to each of these scenes can help us to better understand our own emotions.

Similarly, you can help your child understand and express emotions by helping them create soundtracks to their feelings. Children cope with a lot and children with special needs cope with even more: feeling different from peers, frustrated by challenges, etc. They may also have difficulty processing what is taking place around them. Additionally, if your child is on the autism spectrum, he or she most likely has difficulty recognizing emotion in others. This can make it difficult to interpret signals sent by caregivers, teachers, and peers. Using music to teach about recognizing and expressing emotions can help your child develop the following abilities: self-soothing, recognizing emotions, asking for support and validation, and expressing emotions in a safe, helpful way. Developing these skills can enhance your child’s and your family’s quality of life through improved communication and decreased stress in the home.

There are many ways to use music to support emotions in your home. Here are a few ideas to incorporate into what you already do:

Invite your child to find songs that support and comfort them when they’re feeling the following emotions: happy, sad, angry, and afraid. Does your child have other favorite songs they want to connect to an emotion? Maybe your child wants to add an emotion to the list. You can make a wheel map with your child that has at its center, “Music and My Feelings”. Each spoke of the wheel should represent a different emotion. Work with your child to help them find the songs they like and fill them in for each emotion. The most important part of this is that your child puts in the songs that are meaningful to him or her. Strive to find songs for each emotion that are validating and comforting, so they can allow your child to feel his or emotion and then to move through it to a more comfortable place. This may take several songs.

Ask your child to make up a song about what they are feeling. You might need to model this for them first. For example, you might sing a song that goes, “The snow was so annoying, it really got me down. I had to drive for two hours just to get across town!” Be sure to demonstrate a face that expresses the correct emotion as well as model that this is a fun and safe way to say what you’re feeling. Using music in this way can help a child feel a sense of safety even when they are expressing something that is difficult for them to express.

Amy Madson, music specialist at The Whole Learning School, is a board-certified music therapist and licensed associate marriage and family therapist. In addition to working at TWLS, she maintains a private practice called Aria Counseling in which she specializes in integrating the creative arts, specifically music, into mental health counseling for adults, children, and families. She invites you to contact her with any feedback, questions, or comments.  amy@ariacounseling.com, 612-219-1449, www.ariacounseling.com.