The year 2020 was one of heightened stress for families. This fall, families may continue to experience stressors as they transition back to school and return to activities that have been modified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chronic stress can hinder a child’s development and have a negative impact on their physical health. It is crucial to our children’s well-being that we introduce accessible coping mechanisms that will aid them in their neurological development and ability to cope with stress throughout this challenging and vulnerable transition.
Music is a powerful tool that can instantly combat stress, enhance neurological development and build emotional resiliency. Here are some tips on how to incorporate music into your family’s routine.
Sing a song
Research shows that singing boosts serotonin, oxytocin and other feel-good hormones. Singing can also activate our vagus nerve, which cues our body’s parasympathetic nervous system to calm and reduce stress hormones such as cortisol. Singing to stimulate the vagus nerve can also have immune-boosting effects. Start by encouraging sing-a-longs in the car or sing your children’s favorite songs with them a capella before bedtime or while doing household chores.
Encourage deep “belly breaths” during singing and practice mindfulness by prompting your child to notice where they feel vibrations in their body as they sing. To help children who are shy, keep it silly and turn it into a “singing instead of talking” game. See how long your family can keep the game going!
Create intentional playlists
Craft playlists to support with transitions and provide structure during your routine. Music can rewire the brain, and listening to music can transform children’s emotional and behavioral state.
Create playlists with your child to use consistently during certain parts of the day — for example, a morning playlist while getting ready for school, a bath time playlist, etc. Children’s brains quickly begin to build associations of safety, structure and familiarity, which will then cue the body’s regulation and relaxation response. For children under 8, select music that has a repetitive and simple melody whenever possible (nursery rhymes or reggae are perfect for this). Engage older children in the playlist creation process by asking them to help choose songs. This is an opportunity to honor your children’s individuality and provide them with a sense of control.
Move to music
For a mega-boost of endorphins, use music to encourage dance parties in your home. Not only will the endorphins reduce stress, dancing is a bonding experience and excellent exercise.
Create a dance together as a family or show off your freestyle moves. Take turns selecting your favorite songs or even create a family dance playlist.
Play with music
Children learn and process the world around them through play, and music is an adaptable form of play for all ages.
When music is incorporated into playtime, it can enhance imagination, increase focus and promote releasing emotions. For young children, try narrating playtime by singing as you play with toys together or playing their favorite movie soundtrack while re-enacting the scenes. For older children “playing with music” might look like learning how to play a new instrument or exploring sounds on a recording software. It is important to encourage exploration and expression over pursuing perfection to optimize music’s health outcomes.
Music can serve as another option for expressing feelings. The act of making music ignites all areas of the brain including the limbic system, which is responsible for emotion; the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions; and the cerebellum, which is responsible for motor coordination. By playing music, one is increasing their neuroplasticity and creating a fast track to brain development.
Jenna Bollard-Marcovitz, MA, MT-BC, CCLS, RMT is the music therapy program director at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital.