An “oldie but goodie” blog post in the New York Times titled “Giving a Child Permission to Be Miserable” continues to be very thought provoking and applicable to my work as a music therapist. KJ Dell’antonia writes about how “it’s hard to be with a child who’s suffering”. While I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, I also believe it is even more difficult to be with a child who is suffering and cannot tell you what is wrong.
In my private practice, I often work with children who have autism and other special needs. Many are pre-verbal or have limited verbal skills. Over the years, I have had many experiences where a child becomes upset and/or disregulated and begins to vocalize or cry in a distressed manner. At that moment, knowing they have not physically hurt themselves, I have two choices – to soothe or to validate. I don’t want my client to be upset, I want her to be happy, and feel connected and engaged. But life is not always like this. Sometimes things are tough. And whatever may be going on for my client at that moment – even though I can’t define it and they can’t tell me – is no less valid of a feeling.
I think we all can recall a moment in our lives when we did not want to hear “oh, it’ll be okay” but rather have someone to bear witness to our anger, frustration or sadness.
The first time I had a child become very upset during a session, my instinct was to soothe, to ground, to hold. I wanted to make it better. Looking back at the video of the session, I saw that I tried to do just that. I remained calm and grounded, and sang an improvised lullaby-like melody in low, soothing tones. Did it work? Not at all. The child continued to cry, shriek, and quickly became physically disregulated. We eventually had to end the session early.
The next time it happened, I went there with him. He shrieked – I vocalized at a high pitch. He whined – I created a melodic pattern of small intervals. It was hard to go “there”, to meet and mirror his intense discomfort and distress. But I felt in that moment that I was saying to him “I hear you. I really hear you. And yes, it is hard”.
Within two minutes of my mirroring, he began to make eye contact and his vocalizations relaxed. He was able to move through his discomfort and distress, to a place of contentment and reconnection with me.
What I took away from this experience – and continue to reflect on, years later – was a deep understanding that all children need to feel heard and understood, even without words, even when what they are feeling may be hard for the adult to accept or hear.
If you are a parent/grandparent – please click here for more information about individual/family sessions and “Musical Play” in-home coaching – I would be honored to support you in connecting more deeply with your child.
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PPS. I will be holding a parent/grandparent workshop about using music to connect with your child later this spring. Interested? Know someone who is? Contact me directly and let me know!