The mental health of an adolescent needs to be taken seriously. Adolescents are very impressionable and the world they’re growing up in is difficult. Their brains are still developing and will be until they reach their mid-20s. When adolescents face mental health challenges, it can be difficult for them to seek the help they need. This can be due to difficulties expressing themselves or concerns with being judged. How, then, does music therapy support adolescent mental health?
In this blog post, I’m going to share with you more about how music therapy can help. I’ll go over the mental health needs of adolescents. In doing so, I’ll share reasons why adolescents may be reluctant to go to therapy. Following this, I’ll talk about how music therapy supports adolescent mental health.
Why Consider Music Therapy for Addressing Adolescent Mental Health Needs?
Music therapy is a great modality for helping adolescents with mental health challenges. This is because teens connect with music in many different ways. Lyrics, melodies, beats, and specific songs all speak to adolescents in different ways. Much of my work at SoundWell Music Therapy is with teens because of the ways in which they connect with music.
The teens I work with are struggling with their mental health and want to find healing in music. They may be discovering who they are and music is part of their identity.
In my work, music contributes to the development of the therapeutic relationship. Music allows me to relate to my adolescent clients in ways different than talk therapy. As a therapist, I am not there to judge their musical preferences. When we engage in music together, we talk and process the experience. This is true whether we’re actively creating the music or simply listening to it. Music serves as the vehicle for therapy.
What Adolescent Mental Health Needs Do Teens Have?
Adolescence is a difficult time for everyone. It can be especially hard for teens who are managing feelings of anxiety and depression. These feelings can stem from having a neurodivergent mind or healing from trauma. For some teens, they may have a parent or close family member with mental health issues. Music therapy can help teens coming from any and all of these backgrounds.
It helps reduce depression and anxiety by helping to improve mood.  Music therapy for adolescents can help teens navigate feelings of anxiety and depression. The modality of music provides the means for expressing what needs to be expressed.
Music therapy also helps adolescents with the self-regulation of emotions. Adolescents have an activated limbic system. Their brains are still developing and the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed. This means that teens may seem more sensitive than adults. 
With that, their actions may not seem rational to the adults in their life. Everything can feel overwhelming to teens. For some, trying to keep up with pop culture and social media can feel overwhelming. For others, these overwhelming feelings come from the social injustices that they see. Still, for others, they may have sensory processing issues that can lead to such feelings.
Adolescents may show aggression towards others or themselves. They might have rages and fits of swearing or name-calling toward their parents. Everyday things may scare them more easily. They may also feel excitement stronger than adults.  Again, their limbic systems are more prone to activation. Adding to this is the fact that adolescence is a time of boundary-pushing for teens, so there’s that too.
A history of trauma adverse childhood experiences can amplify these difficulties with self-regulation. The brains of teens who have experienced trauma have to do a lot of extra work. Their brains have to work twice as hard to process the trauma and regulate emotions.  Imagine how difficult this might make learning new things in school and in everyday life.
Self-Identity and Belonging
Adolescent mental health can also be impacted by the need for a sense of self and belonging. Developmentally, teens are grappling with their identity and who they are as a person. They also are desperate to fit in with their peers. Social media and the pressure to be “perfect” has increased the need for teens to find mental health support. Constantly scrolling through filtered posts on social media that aren’t based in reality takes a toll. We’re seeing that it can increase depression and decrease a sense of self-worth.
Adolescents are also continuing to develop, maintain, and optimize executive functioning. This refers to a person’s cognitive functioning. You can read more about executive functioning by following the link above.
Why Teens Might Be Reluctant To Go To Therapy
It can be difficult for anyone to go to therapy and recognize that they need help. Therapy is for everyone, regardless of whether you have a diagnosis or not. Adolescents benefit from therapy just as much as adults do.
Here are some reasons why a teen might be reluctant to go to therapy. They:
- Don’t want to talk to an adult about what’s going on in their lives
- Think it might be boring
- Think they won’t get anything from the experience
Thinking They Won’t Be Understood
Often, adolescents feel that adults won’t understand them. They may not want to go to therapy because they’re afraid that they won’t be able to relate to an adult therapist. The fear is that the therapist won’t “get it.”
Even with the use of music in therapy, there can be the concern around being judged. For example, some kids may listen to music that others deem as being “inappropriate.” But as a therapist who supports teen mental health, I want to know more about what they connect to in the music. It is not my job to judge their music, but rather to understand the impact that their music has on them.
In the case of making music, the risk for self-judgement can be high. For example, the things they play may not sound like they want them to. Playing an instrument and making music are complex activities. They involve a certain level of coordination and executive functioning skills.
Some teens may have a hard time with this as a result. They may get frustrated that they aren’t able to “get it” right away. This can lead to feelings of judgment towards themselves. It can also lead to a desire to better understand themselves and how their brain operates.
I work with teens to help them understand themselves better. As a therapist and educator, I understand that people process information differently. Additionally, I know that skills develop through practice and repetition. Through music we can create understanding.
Worried That Therapy Will Be Boring
Many teens think that therapy will be boring. They might imagine the usual stereotype of lying on a couch talking to an old white guy who is taking notes. But this couldn’t be further from the type of therapy I do.
While talking is a part of therapy, music therapy is an engaging process. I work collaboratively with my clients through music and their therapeutic goals. What could be more fun or cathartic than banging on a drum or listening to your favorite song? It’s all about the process in music therapy with adolescents. I’m following their lead and directly guiding when necessary.
The Belief That They Won’t Get Anything Out of Therapy
It’s common for people to be afraid they won’t get anything out of the experience of going to therapy. Again, music therapy with adolescents don’t look like a normal therapy session. There’s much to gain from attending therapy if you can open your mind and try something new. Therapy isn’t always about breakthroughs.
Often it’s about the therapeutic relationship with someone who is there to support and listen to you. The therapeutic relationship is different from a friendship or family relationship. For many, it is an opportunity to experience a healthy relationship. It can be an opportunity to explore boundaries, interpersonal dynamics and intrapersonal experiences. Through this, we can learn how to have healthier relationships with others in our lives.
How Music Therapy Can Help Support Adolescent Mental Health
For these reasons, music therapy can be a helpful way to meet the mental health needs of adolescents. Using music in my work gives me the opportunity to connect with teens on a deeper level. Sometimes music is the only way to express what needs to be expressed.
Music Therapy Can Be Affirming
Music can be affirming to who they are. Many teens identify with different genres of music. It’s my job to help them find their identity within the music. I can also guide them to expand their music preferences. Doing so can help broaden their emotional vocabulary and expand their perspective.
Music Therapy Can Help Cope With Feelings of Anxiety and Depression
Using music intentionally can help teens cope with feelings of anxiety and depression. Part of this involves understanding how music influences our feelings. This can entail taking note of how you feel when you hear certain songs or certain kinds of music.
Sometimes this means being open to new artists or new kinds of music. This is because sometimes the music we prefer can keep us feeling stuck in bad thoughts and feelings. While it’s important to express our full range of emotions, it doesn’t help us to stay stuck in those feelings. Instead, it’s important to find the music to express what we’re feeling so that we can then move forward.
Yet, sometimes the music that we prefer does help us in these ways. As a music therapist, I reserve judgment on what kind of music my teen clients relate to. What I want to know is how they’re affected by their music. Is it helpful or harmful to them?
Music Therapy Can Provide Ways For Relating
Music can provide a way to be able to relate in therapy. It can help adolescents relate to me, but also relate to themselves. Again, this is through exploring identity and their relationship with themselves. Adolescents can connect to the therapeutic process through music. As well, they can connect to the therapeutic alliance with me. I often like to say that music is my co-therapist when music is involved in sessions.
Music Therapy Is Multi-sensory
Music is multi-sensory. This allows teens to engage in different ways in the therapy process. This is especially helpful for those teens with sensory processing issues.
Music therapy uses tactile, auditory, and visual senses.  The tactile part is using instruments and feeling the vibrations of the sound. Auditory is the sounds we make and the sounds we hear. The visual sense is stimulated in different ways. This can involve playing instruments and/or reading the music. Or it can involve just seeing another person making music with you.
Music Therapy Is Motivating
Music can also be motivating. I often encourage my clients to make playlists that get them moving. Maybe they make a playlist that pumps them up to work out or clean the house. Sometimes the motivation comes from learning how to play a song or instrument. Music can motivate and inspire us in different ways.
As well, I use music in different ways when working with adolescents in a music therapy session. These ways include music listening, making music, and songwriting. These are all powerful ways that music therapy supports adolescent mental health.
Getting Adolescent Mental Health Support for Your Teen
So what comes next? If you’re a teen or the parent of a teen and are ready to take a step toward receiving mental health support through music therapy be sure to contact me. I provide music therapy to teens of all ages. I offer a free 15-minute phone consultation during which we can talk more about what your needs are. You can schedule here.