How I'm using music to teach my son to channel his emotions

By: Sheila ScarboroughCC BY 2.0

We've lucked out so far in the kid-having world: our son, Jasper, is a reasonably mellow individual. At this point (he turned three a month ago) he speaks easily and can tell us what's going on with him — most of the time. However, like most kids his age, every so often he flies into what can only be described as preschooler rages and they totally kick our asses.

These are usually prompted by something — someone doesn't share with him (or he doesn't want to share with someone) at the book store, he doesn't want to clean up his toys, or we've committed some kind of perceived injustice against him. Depending on the specifics of what's happened, he'll usually screech and then burst into tears. The entire episode typically lasts less than a minute, but he sometimes has residual emotions that spill out over the next hour or two — no screeching, but just general grumpiness.

We're generally very gentle with him when this happens — we pull him over to the side, ask him what's wrong or what he's feeling, and then wait quietly until he calms down enough to explain. My son recently had a full-on momentary meltdown because he and a kid disagreed on how to best play with toy trains (to be fair, the other kid totally had a meltdown also), and when we were leaving the scene of the crime he was still shaken up by the event.

When we got in the car he asked if we could listen to Nirvana, so I popped in one of their greatest hits albums. He's a big fan of the band, and while we were listening to Sliver it occurred to me that the song was an excellent stress reliever for me — in fact, I used to listen to it in high school whenever I too felt like an injustice had been committed against me.

I then quickly realized that one of the biggest draws to music for me is the way I connect to it — if I'm feeling sad, there's always a song to go to. If I feel defeated, I know that it's time to turn on Run Of The Mill by George Harrison. For every feeling and emotion I might have — anger, heartbreak, joy, happiness, desperation, etc. — there's a song that can help me through it. This is what I love about music: it's always there for you. So I thought… hey! Maybe this would work for my kid.

It was easy to then turn this idea around into a conversation my son could understand. When we got home, I asked if he remembered being upset at the train table. He immediately and emphatically said yes, so I knew it was still fresh on his mind. I asked him what he felt while we were there, and he first told me he was angry, but then that he was sad. So then I asked him if he definitely knew what angry and sad felt like, and he replied in the affirmative.

My next questions were about songs — did he know a song that was angry? And did he know a song that was sad? — and he had replies for both. He told me that "Grandma take me home" (his name for "Sliver") was a song that felt like it was angry, and that Bob Dylan and George Harrison have some songs that feel like they are sad.

Eventually we worked the conversation around the feelings and the songs, and I told him how music helps me process my feelings. Instead of reacting angrily or lashing out, I can always try to put on a song and channel the intensity of what I'm feeling into it. I asked if he thought this might work for him, and he said he thought so.

It's been a week or two since I started trying this out, and so far the results are mixed — there are still plenty of tiny rages, but for every time he's freaked out there's another time during which he looked at me and asked if we could listen to a song. I have NO CLUE if this is really stellar parenting advice or what… but it's what's currently working for us.

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  1. I love it! I love how you tuned inward and found a solution that works for your family. You as the parent, are the expert on your kid. BTW, the science of brain research and child development tells us that musical training fine-tunes a child for the emotional aspects of speech. I am wondering if your son would enjoy playing an instrument as well as listening to the wonderful sounds instruments and voices make. All the best, Nita

    3 agree
    • He does love to play as well. He has an ukulele and a drum, and has expressed interest in learning to play piano and guitar. :)

      2 agree
  2. That's a really interesting idea. I've just started doing this for myself recently! I was really overwhelmed yesterday and found that listening to crazily intricate classical music kind of took on those emotions for me and let me breathe.
    I love the names that children give to songs!

  3. This is something Rugz and I have always done for ourselves, and we've found it makes a HUGE difference for our girls. Total meltdown – calm/happy in 5 seconds with a single application of metal. *Shrugs* It works for us, and they're very good at expressing their emotions and how the situation is affecting them.

  4. It is fantastic that you recognized this! (be prepared, I am about to geek out over this!)
    Especially allowing your son the freedom to explore and listen to the music he identifies with! That is completely stellar parenting ­čśë

    Music is well known to contribute positively to a child's development socially, emotionally, academically ect. How it does hasn't been entirely outlined (scientists are still trying to map our wonderful brain), but nearly all research has found students in controlled groups excel in all areas when involved with or even just exposed to music! So let kids bang on the pots and pans (and try out those guitar lessons)!

    I'm a music education student and have been researching correlations between music and identity. For those who love to read about this kind of stuff, I found this great article the other day on music and emotional intelligence.

  5. This is a great idea! My little guy takes after me and loves music too. Put on some A Day To Remember or Rise Against and all the crying stops and he's a happy little guy. Or when he's crabby and I know it's because he's tired I put on the Beatles or Bob Marley and he's asleep in seconds. He will be 2 in June and I can't wait til he's older and we can really talk about the music and how it makes him feel and what he really likes.


    My little guy gets super excited for Tool, Pantera, Isis, and 3Inches of Blood. Instant fix for most tantrums. Sigh of relief, deep breath.

  7. Is it SAD that I read the caption "Music music music!" in Elmo's voice inside my head?

  8. This is a great idea! I always associate my emotions with music, it's the best outlet to me! There's been times where if I can't put into words how I feel I play a song for someone that describes it perfectly. I'll definitely keep this in mind for when my girls get a little older :)

  9. Songs can also help you get things done. In my classroom we used to have a finishing song and a cleanup song. When the finishing song was over the kids had to be on the carpet. While the cleanup song was on everyone had to pitch in and clean up. Much nicer to listen to than a teacher repeating and instruction a bunch of times.

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