Foster parents are called on to make sure the kids in their homes receive talk therapy, cognitive therapy and family therapy. But experts who treat trauma in kids removed from their homes say there’s another modality that can be highly effective — bringing out a child’s love of rap, pop or rock ‘n’ roll.
“Music helps you get through the day; if you are down or if you are happy, music gives you a train of thought, it helps you think better,” a then-17-year-old foster youth identified as Steve told music therapy researchers for a 2012 study.
After being moved through 11 foster homes since age 2, Steve’s musical choices were directly linked to how he was experiencing his biological and foster families, either positively or negatively. Some of his favorite rappers, Meek Mill and Young Money, helped him get out his frustrations and escape from daily struggles.
Child welfare specialists say music is an ideal form of therapy because it creates a nonverbal outlet for young people who have experienced trauma or loss to express their emotions. Across the country, a growing number of service providers are recognizing how helpful it can be for foster youth who may be reluctant to engage in talking through their issues with a clinician — or those who are simply tired of telling their stories to child welfare professionals again and again.
Music therapists say there is a wide variety of positive outcomes for foster youth, including improved communication, decreased anxiety and stress, and better social and emotional skills.
In his landmark 2014 bestseller “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk writes: “The right half of the brain carries the music of experience. It communicates through facial expressions and body language and by making the sounds of love and sorrow: by singing, swearing, crying, dancing, or mimicking.”
In this way, piano keys, lyrics from Rihanna’s greatest hits or a vigorous singalong could make all the difference in the life of a struggling foster youth.
“I teach students that each musical element has a psychological relationship to what they’re going through,” said Michael Zanders, an assistant professor of music therapy at Temple University. “Rhythms can relate to the negative aspects connected to themselves. Melody relates to expression. And harmony relates to psychosocial skills.”
Zanders, who has researched and written numerous articles about the role music can play in the lives of young people in the child welfare system, recommends that foster parents actively encourage children in their homes to find a music-related outlet, such as a school or church choir.
In addition, he said, they should allow space for foster children to listen to music privately, whether or not they like the genre, or style, without retribution. One foster youth told him that after a foster parent took away their cell phone because they didn’t like the music they were listening to, the loss felt so great it was akin to losing their biological mother all over again.
Child welfare specialists say music is an ideal form of therapy because it creates a nonverbal outlet for young people who have experienced trauma or loss to express their emotions.
Infinity Music Therapy Services in Southington, Connecticut, relies on clinicians and an interactive approach to meet foster youth where they are. Staff are board-certified music therapists who have received undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field. The therapists are proficient in guitar and piano at a minimum, and have passed qualifying board exams and dedicated 1,200 hours in clinical training hours. Therapy sessions are group and individual, depending on the client’s needs.
“It’s not that we are counselors who just apply music, we are specialists who know how to use music within therapy,” said Jona Jeffcoat, director of the clinical group. She recommends that foster parents research board-certified music therapists before bringing them into the children’s lives.
Foster parents play a key role in finding the right kind of music therapist for a child, but it can be hard to access since the care is often not funded by Medicaid. According to the American Music Therapy Association, Maryland, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas and Indiana are the only states that accept music therapy without private insurance.
Connecticut foster youth are often referred to Jeffcoat’s organization because they aren’t responding to traditional forms of therapy. Because music is non-threatening and children are familiar with it, she said her clinicians use it as a “gateway” into connecting with children. Music allows them to develop rapport and create opportunities for discussion, Jeffcoat said.
Music therapy can also help with breathing and mindfulness, professor Zanders said.
For example, one song that Zanders examined was Runnin’ (Dying to Live), by artists Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G, which was used to identify feelings through its lyrics.
“Music, especially within the therapeutic classes, is used as a safe and transitional object to find that support or resource which is an early, necessary psychological need to feel safe and comfortable,” Zanders said.
Jeffcoat’s sessions include movement to music — through dance or beating drums.
The music incorporated is based on the child’s preference. Some clients’ favorite genre is rap, while others prefer pop or heavy metal.
“Because music is tied so much in developmental milestones, it’s very easy to apply for just about any age and any ability,” she said.
A recent session included an exercise that involved composing a song, in which a child used the words to reflect how they were experiencing life. Feeling the accomplishment of working on something over time is very different from talk therapy, Jeffcoat said, “where you’re just talking every single week.”
One child that Jeffcoat worked with was getting bad grades and had anger management issues. After a while, she was able to open up more in therapy, got back on track to graduate and recently was hired for a job. “We’re able to see how anger management gets under control,” she said.
Jeffcoat worked with an entire foster family, where she saw improved communication and better emotional understanding of what the foster child was going through after enduring multiple placements.
Music therapy for youth ”affords them an opportunity for healing and finding meaning,” Zanders said. “Particularly for adolescents, music is their identity.”