Music and Trauma

Mary Helen Rossi
June 15, 2022
Female music teacher playing acoustic guitar with her young teenage girl student also playing acoustic guitar during holiday recitals

Childhood Trauma: More Prevalent Than We Like to Think

Music and trauma can go hand in hand if you're looking for a healing modality. That's saying something, because trauma can be very difficult to heal but it is, nevertheless, pervasive in our culture. According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), “More than two-thirds of children reported at least 1 traumatic event by age 16.”The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) calculates that childhood trauma is our nation’s single largest public health issue.

Why Parents Need to Know About Trauma

Why are we discussing trauma in a blog about music lessons? For three reasons:

  1. Because chances are high that your children have or will experience some sort of trauma in their childhood.
  2. It’s helpful for adults to know about trauma and how it may have affected them personally.
  3. Learning music can be a powerful tool to deal with trauma.

For ourselves: If we consider the high incidence of trauma from a personal perspective, then it’s safe to say that we parents are in the minority if we did not experience trauma as a child. This post might shed some light on how it affects us and, although you’re probably reading this for your children’s sake, give you a reason to consider music lessons for yourself.For your children: Considering the data from your child’s perspective, it means that chances are high that your child has or will experience at least one traumatic event by age 16. In that light, we hope this post will shed some light on why music lessons aren’t a luxury, they’re a downright necessity.Before we go on, allow us to remind you of one fact you probably already know but that might not be top of mind:

Children who are traumatized rarely talk about it.

Since your child probably won’t be the one to bring it up or even admit it’s happening, what can you do? You can start by understanding some basics about trauma. Then, you can decide to be proactive and even (if we may suggest) do everything you can to address the potential of trauma.

What Constitutes Trauma?

We like the definition of trauma offered by Integrated Listening:

Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual's ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, and diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.

Trauma’s Impact

Traumatic stress can impact every aspect of a person’s life. In fact, research has shown that child trauma survivors may experience:

  • Learning problems, including lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions
  • Increased use of health and mental health services
  • Increased involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems
  • Long-term health problems (e.g., diabetes and heart disease)

In some ways, trauma is the emotional equivalent of cancer – it can severely impact a person’s ability to live a happy, successful life. Although trauma usually isn’t terminal in the sense of end-of-life terminal, it can easily terminate a child’s sense of self… no longer trusting that she’s okay as she is naturally, she will be unable to develop and grow into her true nature.Where will this leave her? Everyone copes with trauma differently. Some withdraw, some become aggressively outgoing to protect themselves, and many look to others to define who they are. There are countless ways to cope.

Why We Need to Address It

There’s nothing comfortable about trauma, so many people are tempted to avoid facing it – ours or our children’s. But that’s exactly what we don’t want to do. That’s because trauma doesn’t diminish on its own and, if not addressed it can affect every aspect of a person’s life.

How We Can Address It

Like cancer, trauma can be tricky to heal, partly because it makes such a personal impact. It’s as if it rewires us, changing us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Insidious is a good word here. As we said earlier, one child who is bullied might lose confidence in herself and withdraw – another might lose confidence and become a defensive, angry fighter, another …So, how can you address something that’s so amorphous? As most trauma survivors will tell you, psychiatric therapy by itself isn’t completely effective. Countless people understand their trauma and know what they should do, but they can’t get at it. That’s because trauma isn’t an intellectual experience. Trauma hits us in the gut.According to Bessel van der Kolk, MD, a psychiatrist and trauma specialist with decades of on-the-ground experience, “Traumawreaks havoc in ourbodies.” If trauma isn’t an intellectual concept, how can we address it? Dr. van der Kolk suggests that visceral, instinctual, intuitive, experiential modalities can be helpful.

Why Learning Music Can Heal

Music educator Bill Rossi spent decades teaching challenged students (many of whom were diagnosed with PTSD). He immersed them in learning the Blues, and that empowered them to rise above their circumstances to become self-confident. He speaks of this musical process as “the development of creative impulses”:

There is a unique, dark loneliness that abused and traumatized people feel where hopelessness and desperation prevail. It is here that special help is needed, an effective means of overcoming this circumstance not only to make life bearable but also to give opportunities of hope. We can offer this through the development of creative impulses.

Rossi says that when a student learns a style of music that feels personal, she will feel as if she’s in a conversation and will have creative impulses to respond. If encouraged to do this she will begin to reestablish her relationship with herself or, in the case of children who have not been traumatized, will strengthen that relationship. Either way, she will learn more about who she is.As Rossi explains, this can also bring her back into the world.

“Having a means to share emerging feelings and ideas provides the ground for feeling happiness instead of fear, empowering students to take steps away from trauma and into the world, because not only do they begin to realize their own possibilities, they also put themselves in position to understand and take advantage of new possibilities available around them.”

Feeling Confident and Competent Diminishes Trauma

Let’s say your child has become less outgoing and you’re concerned that she may have been bullied or otherwise belittled and put down. She may be unwilling to talk with you about how she’s feeling – and may well not understand what’s happening to her. But if it makes sense to you that she needs a way to express herself so she can move beyond whatever has happened, then a substantial involvement in music could be very helpful.Music offers a visceral, experiential way of getting in touch with – and expressing – yourself. Traumatized or not, it provides the opportunity of finding out who you are on a feeling level. It’s a safe way to explore yourself, the self that trauma once submerged.  You might say it can bring you home.Our teachers at The Music Studio Atlanta are deep into music. It’s their chosen thing – their personal way of getting in touch with and expressing who they are. And the teachers we hire are teaching because they’re sharing a craft that makes such a difference in their lives.Of course, we’re not saying that music lessons will necessarily be the end-all to be-all of trauma. We are simply saying that music lessons have the potential to make a child feel more confident, happier, and more capable. We're saying that not only can learning music lessen the effects of trauma, but learning music can also bring you home.If you’d like more, please read our post The Benefits of Music Lessons. Trauma or not, music lessons at The Music Studio Atlanta can bring tremendous well-being, satisfaction, and – dare we say it? – joy.Contact us today!

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Mary Helen Rossi
June 15, 2022