When Kids Are Depressed, Music Can Help


A new study has found that music therapy can reduce depression and raise self-esteem in young people. (Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images)

Growing up can be full-time job — and not an easy one. And the infamous pitfalls and challenges kids face today can lead to emotional distress and behavioral problems. According to recent research, parents can now turn to a new treatment to help their troubled children —music therapy.

A new study has discovered that music therapy reduces depression and raises self-esteem in children and adolescents with behavioral and emotional problems. The research also found that those young people who received music therapy had improved communicative and interactive skills, compared to those who received usual care options alone.

The fact that music has therapeutic affects isn’t a revelation, and past research has shown that simply listening to upbeat music can boost a person’s mood. But music therapy is more than simply popping on a pair of headphones. According to the American Music Therapy Association, it is the clinical use of music to accomplish specific goals in a therapy setting. It can include creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music, but the treatment has to be administered by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.

"Music therapy is a health profession that uses music as a treatment tool to address non-musical goals," Al Bumanis, spokesperson for the American Music Therapy Association, told Yahoo Health. "The structure of music — tempo, rhythm, pitch — can be applied in a scientific way to help people overcome a wide range of physical and emotional problems." Music therapy is often just one part of a patients overall treatment plan and has also been used to lessen the affects of dementia in older patients, reduce asthma symptoms in children, and improve sleep patterns and weight in premature infants.

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For this study, researchers, in partnership with the Northern Ireland Music Therapy Trust, divided 251 children and adolescents into two groups, one of which underwent standard care while the other was assigned 12 half-hour weekly sessions of music therapy. In their sessions participants used music in various forms including improvisation and song writing to explore their thoughts and feelings in a safe, non-judgmental environment.

"The findings are dramatic and underscore the need for music therapy to be made available as a mainstream treatment option," Ciara Reilly, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Music Therapy Trust, said in a press statement. "For a long time we have relied on anecdotal evidence and small-scale research findings about how well music therapy works. Now we have robust clinical evidence to show its beneficial effects."

Normal Moodiness—or Something More?

Depression affects 17 million Americans of all ages each year. As many a 1 in 33 children and 1 in 8 teenagers have depression, according to KidsHealth. It’s certainly normal for young people, especially adolescents, to be moody, so it can be tricky for parents to gauge the emotional well-being of their children.

"Depression is just a diagnostic label that is composed of a number of symptoms that help us decide a course of treatment," author and psychologist Mary Lamia told Yahoo health. “What really matters are the emotions that kids are actually feeling. It’s important to understand and address these underlying emotions, so we aren’t just throwing labels on kids and calling them depressed.”

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Parents should try to empathize with their kids and make them feel safe, rather than suggest there is something wrong, said Lamia. “Around the age of 10 and beyond, a child’s self-conscious emotions are in full swing, and a lot of what children encounter in their daily lives makes them feel shamed or humiliated,” she continued. “And shame often mimics depression in how kids respond to it, through avoidance, withdrawal, harming themselves, or attacking others.”

"Sometimes kids are in a bad mood because they should be," said Lamia. "Every day, kids are confronted with feelings of shame, guilt, and jealousy, so it’s no surprise that they are moody. If parents can understand the emotional toll that this takes on their children, they can better understand how to respond."