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Questions to ask your teenager about music and mental health

Music affords opportunities for emotions and connection like little else. Nicki Varkevisser

Questions to ask your teenager about music and mental health

There are already so many important conversations to have with your teenager – how to bring up the topic of pornography, the kinds of behaviours that underpin male violence against women, meaningful inclusion of people who are different to them … but what can a discussion of music reveal?

Young people’s music choices have been a topic of adult interest and concern ever since the division between adult and adolescent music was constructed in the 1950s. This distinction between youth and adult markets was a strategy designed by music and film magnates to help newly affluent babyboomers spend their hard-earned cash in a number of developed countries.

The pre-teen market emerged decades later, but teenyboppers have since grown into the main consumers of pop music and are a priority target for the music industry. The fact that parents sometimes feel excluded from youth music is therefore utterly intentional.

Not only does it serve the music industry, but it also provides young people with an opportunity for individuation – a healthy psychological process of transferring loyalty from parents to peers that is developmentally timetabled for adolescence.

fernando butcher

Of course, healthy development is one thing, but there are times when parents worry about their child’s mental health and may perceive that their music choices are reflecting or reinforcing their unhappiness.

Our investigations into the ways that teenagers use music to influence their mental health have shown that this is complex territory that is not always well understood.

We have used both surveys and in-depth interviews to ask young people about their relationship with music and the results suggest that conversations on this topic require careful negotiation.

There are two common mistakes that caring parents often make.

First, there is the belief that music does something to young people. If music were that powerful, my career as a music therapist would be a lot more profitable; I would not hesitate to use music to bring about world peace and equity, as a start.

David Urbanke

Music is not a causative variable that can render predictable benefits if taken like a drug. It functions more like a condition that promotes particular potentials, but those potentials do not come in to play unless they are given permission by the young person – consciously or unconsciously.

In other words, we can use music to calm ourselves down, but we have to choose to do so.

Second, there is the belief that different types of music have different effects. So upbeat music with positive lyrics and a major tonality should make us happy, and slow music with sad lyrics and a minor tonality should make us depressed.

Again, the opposite can be true, with people’s personal associations effectively overriding any inherent direction suggested by the music. So music that makes one person happy could be utterly depressing, or irritating, for another. And so it goes.

But what can you do when your teenager is listening to music that triggers a sense of concern in you?

Well, first of all, it’s a fantastic opportunity for bonding and dialogue. While teenagers may be using music to separate from their parents, they are often pretty passionate about it, and don’t mind expressing their opinions about it under the right conditions.

We have developed and tested a 13 question tool to use in clinical practice, but these questions can be distilled to a smaller number for parents.

So, set aside your pre-assumptions and begin the conversation with:

So, what kind of music are you listening to at the moment?

All going well, this should lead to a good chat. But if your child is struggling with mental health problems, he or she may need help to identify some habits that are working against them.

If your concerns linger, try these questions that might help draw out any tendencies to be using music to ruminate or intensify negative states of being:

1) Do you sometimes get stuck in bad memories when you listen to music?

This is the classic rumination strategy, used by most of us in healthy ways to process and work through challenging situations. The “break-up song” is an excellent example.

But when people are struggling to break out of negative circular thinking patterns, music can be an all-too-effective way of staying stuck in repetitious thoughts.

2) Do you ever try to use music to feel better, but end up feeling worse?

Most young people rely on music to make them feel better, and have had multiple experiences of this working. But the young people I have spoken to are less skilled at noticing when it isn’t working and will optimistically continue to use the same music that used to make them feel better, even though it has now become associated with feeling worse.

Raising their consciousness of this is more difficult than you might expect, and can take a number of gentle probes to see if this is occurring.

In our studies we had to say, “Really, you’ve NEVER felt worse after listening to music?”, and then, after a while, we would hear, “Well, there was this one time …”, which often turns into many times.

3) Do you ever hide in music because nobody else understands and it blocks people out?

The idea of music being a “friend” is such a beautiful notion and there’s no doubt that music has helped many young people survive periods of isolation when there was no-one in their friendship group that seemed to understand them. But over-identifying with distant idols can become problematic in the context of mental health problems.

When young people desperately need real-time connection, it can be all too easy to hide in music – after all, songs never answer back, they are predictable, and they’ll keep telling you what you want to hear.


There are very few humans who are so reliable, and actually that’s a good thing since good friends provide us with more dynamic feedback that changes as our conditions change. So although music can be something of a saviour and may lead to wonderful connections with people who aren’t living in your neighbourhood, there are times when it may be reinforcing a sense of isolation that has become unhealthy.

4) Does music ever lead you to do things you shouldn’t do?

In our experience, teenagers hate this question, and so they should. As I wrote above, music can’t lead us anywhere: we have to choose to go. But it’s been difficult to find a way of asking about those times when young people intensify an angry or aggressive mood through music listening, and this was the most acceptable question.

Not surprisingly, young people who struggle to control negative outbursts can respond with anger to such a question. You should carefully consider whether this question is worth asking; but there is no doubt that we can use music to pump ourselves up for a big night out, or for a big game, or even to get the housework /homework done, and equally, to inspire dangerous behaviours.

Mostly, young people and older people alike use music in positive and sustaining ways. Music affords opportunities for emotions and connection like little else. And it’s important to remember that what might look negative can actually be a positive processing of difficult emotions.

But if someone you know is struggling with mental health problems that include ruminating and intensifying behaviours, it’s worth having a chat about music and making sure that it’s being used in ways that help.

Raising people’s awareness of how music works is often enough for them to think about what they are doing, and make changes if they decide it’s a good idea.

The Healthy-Unhealthy Uses of Music symposium will be held at the Arts Centre in Melbourne on March 4. Full details here.

Katrina will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 2 and 3pm AEDT on Wednesday, February 17, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.