Teaching Music Lessons for Children with Anxiety and/or Depression

written by Metro Music Makers music therapist Kristen Van Dyke, LPMT, MT-BC

Approximately 21 percent of youth aged 13-18 experience a mental disorder at some point during their adolescence. For children ages 8-15, the estimate is 13 percent. Many people assume that children are immune to mental illness; however, more and more children each year are getting diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

Anxiety and depression are the two most common mental disorders. They can be caused by a wide variety of factors including genetics, lifestyle and environment. Mental disorders affect someone’s thought process, emotional state and daily life activities. Several common symptoms of anxiety disorders — a category of disorders involving feelings  of excessive fear or anxiousness — are as follows:

  • Persistent and excessive worry
  • Fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the situation and hinders the ability to function normally
  • Feeling on edge or easily fatigued
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Restlessness and difficulty sleeping


Several symptoms of depression are as follows:

  • Persistent sad, anxious or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Increased irritability
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
  • Decreased energy
  • Change in appetite
  • Thoughts of death or suicide


How can mental illness affect a music lesson?

Many of the symptoms for anxiety and depression could easily manifest in a music lesson. In the teacher’s mind, a music lesson should be a stress-free, enjoyable experience. However, in the mind of a student with anxiety or depression, sitting down for 30 minutes to play an instrument may stir up a wealth of fears, anxiety and self-doubt. Teachers may notice their student becoming more emotional more quickly, showing signs of frustration, perfectionism tendencies, avoidance behaviors, defensiveness, a lack of communication, and an increase in negative self-talk.

What are the first steps to take toward meeting the needs of my student with a mental health diagnosis?

Every student who has a mental health diagnosis is going to be different. Two students with anxiety may act completely differently. However, music can be used to your advantage! Music can be naturally motivating and encouraging. Have your student choose a favorite song to learn, or utilize songwriting as an outlet. Sharing a personal story for encouragement can also be helpful. For students battling low self-esteem and negative self-talk, create positive affirmation post-it notes to stick on the piano or music stand where they are easily visible. Help the student to re-frame extreme thoughts such as, “I am NEVER going to be able to play this.” “EVERYTHING I am doing is wrong!” Set small and large goals for each piece, as well as setting goals for the student over the course of a few weeks. Finally, help your student to see PROCESS over PRODUCT.

What if I’m spending the entire lesson talking?

It is important to note that a teacher is NOT a therapist. Teachers can be positive influences and a supportive presence in a student’s life, but it is not a teacher’s responsibility to fix the student’s mental state. Teachers can validate their students, but bring it back to the music. Also, do not be afraid to speak with the students’  parents if you notice several of these symptoms for an extended period of time. If a student seems to have more severe symptoms than typical adolescence, they should be referred to a music therapist who is qualified to teach adaptive lessons and provide music therapy when appropriate.


For more information, call us today at 678-637-7293, or email Sara Longwell, our Director of Music Therapy, directly at saramt@metromusicmakers.com.

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