In a small trial, music therapy had a positive effect on both verbal and nonverbal communication between emotionally neglected children and their parents. Parents participating in music therapy also perceived their children as less stressful.
“For children experiencing emotional neglect, music therapy can provide them with a chance to be heard and responded to in a safe, fun, and non-threatening context,” says Kate Williams, a music therapist and lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia who was not involved in the study.
Music therapy generally involves the therapist, parent and child playing instruments together, listening to and discussing music or playing musical games. Stine Jacobsen, who led the new study, told Reuters Health by email that her team used interactive games in which parents and children took turns following and leading each other and the therapist provided, “a musical frame for the family to try and approach each other nonverbally through the music.”
Jacobsen, who heads the music therapy program at Aalborg University, and her colleagues recruited 18 families with children ages 5 to 12 from a residential family care center that acts as an alternative to removing children from their parents.
All of the families showed signs of emotional neglect including social dysfunction or delayed emotional development.
Nine parent-child pairs received the center’s usual treatment program, while the other nine received six to 10 music therapy sessions. The music therapists observed the parent-child interaction and parents reported on their own stress and parental relationship prior to treatment, and again four months later, in questionnaires.
After the series of sessions, parents involved in the music therapy found it easier to talk to and understand their children, and to communicate nonverbally, than parents who did not receive music therapy.
The music therapy parents also reported being less stressed out by their children’s moods and feeling more empathetic toward them, compared to the standard-treatment group, the researchers reported in the Journal of Music Therapy.
Both groups of parents increased their positive responses to the children and decreased their negative ones, and showed improvements in parenting stress and stress in general. That suggests music therapy may not be more effective, but neither was it less effective than the standard care.
Families can also get some of the benefits without attending formal music therapy sessions, Williams says. Shared music experiences between parent and child, such as listening to music together, dancing and singing, are helpful for a child’s development and likely good for parenting skills as well, she says.
Jacobsen recommends starting this musical bonding early. “Singing together or singing for your infant or toddler can be a very intimate bonding activity and comes naturally for some families. The earlier you start interacting nonverbally with your child in a meaningful way the more you might see or feel the benefit.”