As homo sapiens, our offspring rely on us for a longer period than almost any other living creature. Our children rely on us for food, shelter, and all basic psychosocial needs until they are almost eighteen years old, sometimes longer. Evolutionary theorists suggest that this phenomenon of children having an extended childhood, called neoteny, is what helped homo sapiens survive and thrive. We are well aware of the many other human-like species who didn’t make it (Homo erectus, Neanderthals, etc.), but what makes us so unique?
Okay, okay, I know you are wondering how evolutionary theory is tied to emotionally supporting children, but I promise we will get there!
The extensive period of childhood, especially between birth to six, is a mind-blowing timeframe of development. Children’s brains are wired during this time to do more learning, connecting, and growing than in any other period of their human life. And you know what the most daunting element of this is? Their developmental success relies on adults.
Human development is a science that has given us extensive information about the various needs, stages, and contexts of child development. For example, imitation is one of the earliest skills a child develops as it is a foundational element to many other skill sets. Attachment theories show us how important it is that a healthy connection to caregivers promotes emotional maturity as an adult. The relational neurosciences field discusses how the brain and mind are shaped within the context of relationships. All of these theories would agree that children grow, learn, adapt, and develop within the context of the relationships in their life.
Have I convinced you of the importance of relationships yet? Good. Let’s move on!
As music therapists, we are uniquely positioned to create an incredibly powerful
relationship with children. We have the power of music by our side, we love connecting with others, and most of us are in this field to combine our love of music and helping others.
We emerge from our training with a Mary-Poppins bag full of instruments, the energy of a hurricane, and enough intervention ideas to last a lifetime (although it can feel like we never have enough!).
But here is the crucial misstep we can easily find ourselves falling into. We are so focused on doing. How many times have you thought to yourself “What intervention am I going to do next session?” Five million? Me too.
But we often forget the other major element of therapy- being. When we are so focused on doing, we leave no space for being. Being can be defined as pausing, creating space, and connecting. When we slow down and remember to be with a child, we can support their emotional world just by listening and being with them. We can support them by building their emotional awareness, by labeling feelings they don’t even have the words for yet, and by holding the space for them to feel it. When you add in more powerful tools like being emotionally available, using reflective statements, verbalizing tracking phrases, and being flexible, we have all of the tools we need to support every single child that comes into our therapy door. Let’s look at an example.
You are sitting on a chair strumming away on your guitar, leading an intervention targeting physical skills for a 4-year-old child. You are using musical cues to elicit the child's motor system to take steps to reach the multi-colored squares on the floor. The child turns to you and quietly says, “I don’t like this."
Here is an example of where creating space could support a child with self-awareness and socio-emotional skill development. What if you paused and made space to let the child be with that feeling. You reflected on his statement and said to him, “You are not enjoying this activity today." You mirrored his facial expression, body language, and verbal tone. You paused.
This space is gold. What does the child say to you after that? Are they frustrated by their difficulty with taking those steps? Are they about to tell you how they get picked on for having trouble running on the playground? Are they just having a really hard day and need someone to hear them out? Are you one of the only people they can feel vulnerable enough to say this to?
You could be that person. That child needs you to be a human at that moment, and not an adult who wants them to do the next thing on the list. The child is asking you to be with them and not just do with them. Here is another example.
You are sitting with a child at the piano. They are following a color-coded sequence to improve their cognitive skill development and attention span. After a few minutes, the child looks at you, plays random notes while wiggling, looks at you again, and smiles.
Here is another fantastic moment to create space. This child is looking to you to create a relational connection. They want to be silly with you. What if you playfully wiggled back? What if you turned this into a game? What if you said, “You are feeling silly right now." What if you said, “How about every time we play one sequence we get to be silly for a minute afterward?”
You could connect with them by engaging in their creative suggestion. You could reflect on their emotional needs, which children need us to do. You could help them come up with a way to integrate feelings of silliness with work. You could create the space for the human connection (being silly) but hold them to the expectations at the same time. This is such an important task that children need to learn for adulthood!
The best part about creating space to connect emotionally with a child is that your relationship becomes stronger.
A strong relationship with an adult increases a child's resilience factors, improving the odds that they can traverse through negative experiences in their life without considerable difficulty. A stronger relationship allows the child to be more vulnerable with you and, in turn, work on more difficult skill sets and tasks. We have literally evolved as a species to seek out these relational opportunities; it is necessary for our survival.
Here are a few ideas for creating space in your sessions:
Give the child as many opportunities to make choices as you reasonably can.
Make time to notice the emotion of a child, reflect that emotion, and make space after to see the child’s response.
If you follow a structured schedule, make one of the interventions “special time” where the child gets to choose anything they’d like to play (within reason). This special time shouldn’t have to be earned, earned choices can come at a later time in the session. The focus of this special time is connecting with the child, following their lead, and exploring creatively.
Challenge yourself to pause in every session and find a moment to “connect” as part of an intervention.
Bring this space into your life outside of work. Creating space to slow down and connect in our personal lives will not only improve our skill, but will improve all of our relationships!
All children, regardless of their ability level, have intricate emotional worlds. All children need adults in their life who can connect with them, celebrate their uniqueness, and make them feel heard. Almost all children make attempts to connect with adults, many times in their unique way. They are wired to do this. As adults, we can get so busy, get so focused on doing, that we miss these opportunities. We forget to slow down. We forget to pause. We forget that being present with children is an intervention in itself. We forget the most powerful tool in our Marry Poppins bag is the human relationship. We forget to be.
Kate found herself wanting to learn more about child counseling skills when supporting children with developmental differences and medical conditions. She is about to complete her requirements to be a Licensed Professional Counselor. Kate has created The Creative Therapy Umbrella to help music therapists learn more about emotionally supporting children through learning about child counseling skills, child development, creative interventions, and more. Creative Therapy Umbrella has courses about these topics, hosts a weekly podcast, and just announced the opening of "The Umbrella Community". Find out more at creativetherapyumbrella.com or follow us on Instagram!
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