Along with the many physical, emotional and social pressures young teens experience, adolescence is also a period of rapid brain development. Changes in their fast-growing brains make them especially vulnerable to mental health problems … and that’s why more than half of mental illnesses begin before age 14, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
These changes also cause many parents to complain that they don’t understand their adolescent kids – and that feeling often is mutual as adolescents have trouble expressing more complex emotions. Unfortunately, this communication gap happens at a time when strong parent/child relationships are more important than ever to a young person’s mental well-being.
However, one way in which parents can build better communication is through music. Research has shown that “cranking up the tunes” as a family can start important conversations about what’s going on in teens’ lives, as well as help parents and kids maintain the emotional closeness that is so critical during this period.
For example, a previous study published in the Journal of Family Communication found that young adults who shared musical experiences with their parents during childhood – but especially during adolescence – had closer relationships with their parents throughout their teen years and beyond.
“If you have little kids, and you play music with them, that helps you be closer to them, and later in life will make you closer to them,” said University of Arizona Professor Jake Harwood, a co-author of the study. “But if you have teenagers and you can successfully listen to music together, or share musical experiences with them, that has an even stronger effect on your future relationship and the child’s perception of the relationship in emerging adulthood.”
Listening to music together also activates areas of the brain associated with empathy, positive feelings and pleasure, many neuroscientific studies have shown.
Mental health professionals say using music to build communication can be as simple as asking teens to play their favorite songs in the car on family trips, rather than putting their earbuds in and tuning their parents out. Instead of reacting negatively or making judgements about their music choices, parents should really listen and use the music as an opportunity for a deeper conversation. Discussing song lyrics, and the feelings they bring up, can be a way for parents to broach sensitive topics in a way their teens can relate and respond to.
Statistics show that on average, adolescents listen to music for up to three hours a day; and many have spent more than 10,000 hours actively listening to music by the end of their teen years. Sharing music together can provide teens and parents with a common language, helping parents give them the emotional support they need.