Musical Medicine: Building Resilience In Early Years

The world can be overwhelming for anyone, but especially children. Trying to fit in with the way things are, changing and adapting to new people and places, and then finding your own place, is no easy task.  

Children in ill health or recovering from accidents can make life situations even more challenging. Studies with children in hospital (Robb, 2003) found that music helped children to cope better with the often painful and/or invasive procedures that were necessary to make them well again. Approaches used with children in hospitals can be used to improve our understanding of the effects of stress and the ways forward for children. These can be thought of as skills for resilience. 

Looking at the theory of coping (Compas et al., 2014) a little closer, it is clear that coping is a valuable skill that we can develop as children and it helps us to manage stressful events through regulating our emotions. The challenging situations from the last few years of COVID, lockdowns, and the subsequent cost of living crisis are still taking their toll on society, so supportive strategies will be useful for children and staff alike. 

One of the original definitions of coping theory (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) explains that coping is the ability to constantly change the way that we think and behave. This flexibility allows us to manage specific external and internal demands. Often these demands use more resources than a person has available. The success of the way we manage helps to build our resilience to uncertainty. 

Copies exercises use our mental energy to reduce stress. The goal of coping is to solve a problem to return ourselves to where we feel balanced. The way we cope depends on our personality, our patterns and perceptions of the world, so it is helpful to introduce children to a variety of different ideas because resilience is so individual. 

Coping strategies are rules that we turn to, often automatically. They help us to think clearly again, reducing stress, overwhelming feelings and can be positive or negative. 

Positive ways to cope include using a support system (talking to friends), relaxation (breathing, meditation, music therapy) and physical wellness (yoga, cycling, walking). 

In contrast, negative coping responses can actually be harmful and cause more problems down the line. This includes escape and avoidance (ignoring), unhealthy comfort zones (e.g. overeating, television), and emotional numbing (separating through distance). 

One of the best-known grounding exercises for helping children to cope is often used with adults to manage anxiety: the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. 

1 – Name one thing you can taste right now 

2 – Name two things that you can smell right now 

3 – Name three things that you can hear right now 

4 – Name four things that you can feel right now (e.g. clothes) 

5 – Name five things that you can see right now. 

Being present and saying these activities aloud can help the brain stop following negative pathways or predicting the worst case. This helps to put everything back in perspective and manage feelings that may be otherwise overwhelming. Here are some musical approaches that can be used in situations that may trigger negative emotions, helping to build resilience. 

Lavender’s Blue 

Lavender’s Blue, dilly-dilly, Lavender’s green 

When I am king, dilly-dilly, you will be queen 

Who told you so, dilly-dilly, who told you so 

T’was mine own heart, dilly-dilly, that told me so 

Sounds as well as scents can bring relaxation into challenging circumstances. Lavender is well-known for its calming effects on people, especially little ones. It is often used in bathing soaps and lotions to promote peaceful sleep. This gentle song can be used, along with lavender scents, to support calm and relaxing reassurance to little ones. 

Sleep Little One Sleep 

Sleep, sleep, little one sleep 

There outside are all the sheep 

Lambs are penned up, safe from harm 

Sleep my little one, cosy warm 

Sleep, sleep, little one sleep 

Sleep, sleep, little one sleep 

Sleep, sleep, little one sleep 

See the sky is filled with sheep 

Like a flock of clouds drift by 

Led by a moonlit lullaby 

Sleep, sleep, little one sleep 

Sleep, sleep, little one sleep 

Imagination is a powerful way to bring hope in many challenging situations. It can work as a distraction or change of focus, which can bring things back into perspective. It can also provide a mental break or holiday from taxing or demanding situations, bringing hope and the comfort of familiarity. Imagining clouds as mild-mannered sheep creates a lovely picture of safety and security. 

Que Sera Sera 

When I was just a little girl 

I asked my mother, what will I be 

Will I be pretty, will I be rich 

Here’s what she said to me 

Que sera, sera 

Whatever will be, will be 

The future’s not ours to see 

Que sera, sera 

What will be, will be 

This well-known classic uses the idea of acceptance to manage the uncertainties we face in life. While some children may grow up to be protected from situations while young, others will not have that choice. Songs that reinforce the idea that things will be okay can bring hope in the most difficult circumstances. 

Music has long been used to support people in improving their physical and mental health. It is only with relatively recent technological developments that we have been able to start to understand the effects of music, since finding new ways to see inside the body, e.g. x-rays, MRI scans, and EEGs. Hopefully, this article has given practical suggestions on how to support children in different emotional states. 

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