Updated: May 24, 2021
The amazing power of Musical Play and mindfulness techniques to calm and regulate children and families who experience stress and anxiety – the science explained.
As humans, we are first and foremost emotional beings. The major and most fundamental concern of our brains is safety and survival. Anything that our brain senses or assesses as being detrimental to our safety and survival will receive top priority. Everything else will have to wait, including thinking and reasoning. We simply can’t think rationally or logically, or make sense of our world, when we are in a state of high arousal.
In Christchurch, New Zealand, many children and adults have been deeply and emotionally affected by the 2010/2011 earthquakes. Many still experience any sudden sensory stimuli as dangerously assaulting. A large truck rumbling past, or a sudden noise or movement, can trigger fight-or-flight responses in systems so highly charged that the brain is not able to interpret information adequately. Fear responses can prevail, with sensory overload causing chronic anxiety and stress.
Music is an intuitive language of the emotions. We don’t have to think in order to respond to music. Music can immediately become a calming, quieting factor, presenting one of the most viable resources for putting the body at ease. It helps to calm and regulate the lower brain, enabling the sensory systems to calm down.
Music provides a nurturing sound environment “wrapping itself around the body and providing a sense of safety and security” (Berger, 2002, p.47). The brain tracks the sounds, and generally stays tuned in for as long as the sound is present, anticipating the next sound and responding to the musical form.
A parent will probably find that singing to their child accompanied by rocking, patting, and stroking, helps to build calming, predictable, loving routines, especially at bedtime, or when their child becomes upset. Sing or chant about what is happening moment by moment, and sing playful instructions about daily routines, in order to develop a sense of order and predictability.
Calming, relaxing music is a natural sedative that is able to induce the release of dopamine and other relaxants into the system, thus playing a key role in reducing the flow of chemicals that keep the system highly charged and anxious.
Music can reduce fight-or-flight responses by calming the system down long enough to allow efficient regulation in child and adult. A calm, beautiful music environment helps young children and adults to feel safe, and to tolerate lying on the floor in a comfortable position listening to slow, predictable music, taking deep regulating breaths, and experiencing a gradual sense of peace. This can be especially useful in the classroom when children are becoming over-aroused. Match their energy levels with a rhythmic clapping echo activity, dance, or movement exercise, followed by listening to calming, gentle music and/or doing mindfulness exercises.
Such peaceful music experiences help the child/adult to accept new, unpredictable situations, because music helps areas of the lower brain, such as the amygdala (which regulates emotions), to become calm and regulated. Repetitive, predictable, constant music interventions can help the lower brain to respond, and to calm. Music proceeds directly through the lower brain limbic system. We can totally relax and listen intuitively to the expressive, calming sounds.
Babies and young children understand music expression at this intuitive, lower brain level without, as yet, having developed intellect.
Music structures the moment. It helps us to move and play in time, to recognise familiar melodies, and helps us to do something purposefully, accurately and in a variety of ways. It helps us to slow down, to breathe normally, and to respond to the predictable melodic, rhythmic patterns. Music helps build positive experiences and positive memories.
For the brain, information paced by rhythmic pulse and pattern is non-threatening. As soon as information becomes structured and organised within rhythm and pitch patterns, which the brain prefers to unpredictable random items, fear disappears and the lower brain allows information to be enjoyed and processed by the whole brain.
Mindfulness and visualisation techniques, and musical activities, such as listening to the sounds of nature outdoors at the park or at the beach, singing, drawing or painting to music, dancing, and expressing emotions through music, all help to develop positive experiences – thus, building self-esteem, self-awareness, the ability to self-regulate, and a general sense of well-being. Musical Play helps promote acceptance of changing order and routine and emotional expression, and can be used very effectively to match emotions, and to arouse or calm.
For further information about mindfulness for children, follow this link to a Radio New Zealand podcast “Mindfulness for Kids”: https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/afternoons/audio/2018671357/mindfulness-for-kids
Berger, D.S. (2002) Music Therapy, Sensory Integration and the Autistic Child. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. London.
Edwards, J. (Ed). (2011) Music Therapy and Parent-Infant Bonding. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Gould, P. (Ed). (2000) Musical Healing in Cultural Contexts. London: Ashgate.
Stryker, M.P. (2001) Drums Keep Pounding a Rhythm in the Brain. Science 291. 5508, 1506-1507.