Music therapy for children with ADHD and anxiety

Boy listening headphones to music

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most common behavioural and neurodevelopmental disorder that affects 5% to 7% of school-aged children. The number of children with mental health symptoms is even higher, with 1 in 10 young people experiencing a mental health disorder, of which anxiety and depression are the most common.

It is a saddening statistic, and there are varying factors which may contribute to the decline of children’s mental health, including the rise of screen time in kids, problems at school or at home, underlying medical conditions, or other issues that haven’t yet been brought to light. Due to the rise of mental health issues and parents becoming more educated on the potential disorders available, children may be misdiagnosed with medical disorders including ADHD when they could be exhibiting less mature characteristics than their peers or experience other mental health conditions. And, vice versa, other children, may be misdiagnosed with anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder before they are then correctly diagnosed with ADHD.

Ultimately, children need a form of therapy and a way to manage their symptoms so that they can function in everyday life – before and after correct diagnosis. If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, they don’t necessarily need to take Ritalin to control their symptoms. Will.i.am, a highly successful performer, producer and award-winning founder of the Black-Eyed Peas, was diagnosed with ADHD when he as a child. People used to tell him that he was ‘hyper’, but his mum refused Ritalin and encouraged him to continue his dreams. She kept Will.i.am on track by sending him to a charter high school, and that was where Will.i.am discovered early on that music helped him with his ADHD.

“One thing I learned about ADHD is that it’s hard to keep your attention, and you can’t sit still, and you’re always moving and thinking about a whole bunch of things. But those traits work well for me in studios and in meetings about creative ideas.”


I touch briefly upon my own journey with music in the first of my four-part feature series with Yamaha Music London entitled, ‘The benefits of your child learning to play an instrument’ and in my second article, ‘How to encourage your child to take an interest in learning a musical instrument.‘ In these articles, I explain that I had self-diagnosed symptoms of ADHD myself, as I struggled to focus in class and I frequently got into trouble with the teachers. However, when I discovered music, my focus was restored, and I achieved better results all-round.

So this article is going to look into the ways that music can be used as a form of therapy to help kids with anxiety or ADHD to channel their emotions like it did for me and help them feel more satisfied and content in life.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is defined as:

“The clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualised goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music program.”

Music has been used for thousands of years as a method of healing, but the profession itself was only developed in the past 65 years. Music therapy has been used to help children (and adults) to overcome certain obstacles in their lives, as well as change their behaviour and develop individual skills. The primary response to music has been around from birth and continues to be present throughout life. It is through this powerful response to music that music therapists are able to develop relationships with their clients and bring about positive change in a child’s life.

Music therapists can work with children with a range of difficulties, including:

  • Learning difficulties
  • Communication difficulties
  • Emotional difficulties
  • Behavioural difficulties
  • Loss
  • Distressing, traumatic experiences
  • Physical or coordination problems

The sessions resemble counselling, but instead of talking it through, the music therapist works with music. And meetings are treated as confidential.

How does music therapy work?

There is scientific evidence to support music therapy, and its positive results are one of the main reasons why this method is becoming vastly accepted by different programs to treat a range of mental health disorders.

“Where words leave off, music begins,”

Henrich Heine, 19th-century German poet

Heine noticed two hundred years before the onset of neuroscience, trauma research and brain studies how music deeply healed the human soul. And thus, music therapy has played an integral part in neurobiological research and relational healing.

Music therapists use certain kind of musical experiences to create a unique relationship between the child, the music and the therapist. These experiences can include performing music, composing music, listening to music and even improvising according to the child’s needs. The optimum result is to promote health through these musical experiences and access certain emotions and memories.

The process starts by enquiring into music therapy by the referrer (the parent), and this enquiry is followed up with an informal chat with a music therapist about the reason for the referral. A referral and consent form is then sent to the referrer which contains information about the sessional services available. Further discussions are then taken place to arrange a suitable venue and regular weekly sessions, and the child will then be referred to a music therapist. The music therapist will arrange an initial visit to observe the child in their standard setting, usually at the school or at home. They will then speak to other appropriate professionals, i.e. a paediatrician or a psychologist to get to know the child before the first session. The initial visit is the first part of the assessment, and then the terms and conditions are set before the initial music therapy session starts.

Types of music therapy

Music therapy can work in its active form, which involves the child doing something with the music, or as a receptive form, where the child is receiving music, generally through listening. All methods can include verbal processing of feelings and experiences if the child is old enough to understand how to use that method.

The uses of music can be divided into four modes, these are:

  1. Improvising
  2. Performing or re-creating (when the child learns or performs precomposed music)
  3. Composing (the child can write songs, lyrics or instrumental pieces)
  4. Listening experiences. (The child listens to music and responds accordingly)

Music therapy also works very well for children who are unable to verbalise their feelings and who might not feel comfortable going to counselling. The music therapist works together with the child in a method that works best for their needs.

Benefits of music therapy

Music can “sooth the brain stem.”, which is essential to treating an early-life trauma before attempting more traditional approaches. Music therapy can bring about its own unique benefits and can be used with children who display physical or emotional problems. Music therapy provides a great addition to medication and can help to relieve pain and reduce stress. Known benefits can also include:

  • Improved respiration
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Relaxed muscle tension
  • Reduced heart rate

Music therapy for ADHD/Anxiety

Music can cause an immediate positive effect on a childn’s motor and emotional responses, especially when the child is asked to move along to the music, which opens up their sensory pathways. When a child is asked to play an instrument, this act stimulates their brain senses and relaxes the muscles. As ADHD is a brain disorder, music therapy is a great option to control the brain impulses and focus their attention on creating music with their instrument. A study in Geneva found that people who learned an instrument performed better in tests involving attention, memory and executive functioning than those who didn’t play an instrument.

Stringed instruments, like the violin or guitar, are great for children who suffer from ADHD, as they are required to stand up to play, which encourages the child to focus better while improving their hand-eye coordination – all at the same time. Focusing on relatively simple tasks like scales will help their minds to slow down and in turn provide them with a form of meditation, which allows them some respite from their ADHD/anxiety.

Other great instruments for children with ADHD are other stringed instruments, like the cello or the ukulele, the piano, woodwind instruments like the flute, clarinet or saxophone and percussion instruments, for example, the drums.

Music therapy in schools

Child playing electric guitar

Most educational establishments work with music therapists who run sessions with children that display emotional, behavioural or social problems. Music schools and specific charities can also offer music therapy for children who have been referred and they have a range of tools and equipment that will encourage children to explore treatment through the magic of music. Music giants, Yamaha partnered with Chiltern Music Therapy and generously donated 22 keyboards fo reach of the Chiltern Music Therapists.

Sessions may be individual or group based, and parents may be able to request funding through the government.

Music has massively changed my life for the better and my two boys’ lives as well. My eldest suffers from anxiety, and I find that when he sits on the piano and practises, he calms down and his brain senses are relaxed, which bleeds onto the rest of his day and his time at school as well.

If you feel like your child would benefit from music therapy, speak to your local school to find out whether they offer music therapy as an option or contact the local music establishments in your area for more information. You can generally find more information by typing ‘Music Therapy’ and ‘your location’ into Google.

*In partnership with Yamaha Music London*

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Leyla Preston (603 Posts)

Leyla Preston is the owner and Editor of Motherhood Diaries global magazine for parents. Leyla is a busy mother of two even busier boys; Aron, 8, and Aidan, 7. When Leyla isn’t feeding, managing a gazillion tasks or cleaning the infinite mess at home, she is busy working on this magazine and a new cooking channel coming very soon – no rest for the wicked!You can follow Leyla on Twitter (@M_Diaries) or join the busy Motherhood Diaries Facebook group where all mums get together and share stories and solutions with one another: https://www.facebook.com//groups/motherhooddiaries/