Music Therapy for children and adolescents with behavioral and emotional problems

Perhaps you have heard about how music therapy can be successful with children/adolescents with behavioral and emotional problems, but do we know how effective the treatment can be? Many adolescents suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental disorders that cause social, emotional, and behavioral problems. If not dealt with, these problems and behaviors will continue into adulthood. Music therapy has become a more recognized treatment for these individuals (especially because of their natural enjoyment of music), but studies lack in how effective the intervention can be. In “Music Therapy for Children and Adolescents with Behavioural and Emotional Problems: A Randomized Controlled Trial”, Porter, et al. attempted to find out just that.

For this Northern Ireland study, Two-hundred and fifty-one adolescents were chosen and randomly placed into a music therapy treatment or treatment as usual group. Participants were ages eight to sixteen years old and had diagnoses from social, emotional, behavioral, and developmental disorders. Fifty-three percent of the participants had an anxiety diagnosis. Music therapy sessions were primarily improvisational and clients were encouraged to create music through voice, instrument, movement without reservations. The therapist provided support and the technique was focused on helping communication and interpersonal skills through music with verbal or musical reflection of the session at the end of the session. Sessions occurred for twelve weeks for thirty minutes.

The researchers looked at the social skills (through a self-report scale), communications, and self-esteem. At a thirteen week follow up, they found that self-esteem improved and depression was lower in the music therapy group than in the usual care group. However, communication and interaction was not improved from the start of the study. At the week twenty six follow up, there was no longer an improvement in self-esteem or depression.

This study is important, because it the large sample size and randomized nature of the study provide more solid evidence that music therapy is effective with this population, at least in the short term. The researchers recommend more studies to look at the necessary length of music therapy treatment to find longer term benefits.

Porter, S., et al. (2016). Music Therapy for children and adolescents with behavioral and emotional problems: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.


Jessica S. Fletcher, MM, MT-BC