Why Teens Need Their Music, Part I: 4 Secrets for Parents, Backed By Research

What happens between a teenager's headphones? Today's kids aren't listening to the bands you liked at their age -- you already know that. Young people tend to use music as a way of defining and sharing their sense of self, identity, or "personal brand."
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What happens between a teenager's headphones? Today's kids aren't listening to the bands you liked at their age -- you already know that.

Young people tend to use music as a way of defining and sharing their sense of self, identity, or "personal brand."

So why is music important to teens? It turns out that there is a connection between how the brain develops during adolescence and how young people hear music. Overrun by emotions and a prefrontal cortex demanding instant gratification, many young people seek advice from peers instead of parents when faced with difficult decisions. They aren't doing this to make you mad; they're searching for their identity. They have to question your values, even when they agree with them. Why? They're facing pressures you never did: exorbitant college tuition costs, the demand for an elusively "perfect" social media presence, and the unrealistic idea that a student can and should do well in every subject. Looming over them is the worry that after graduation, when faced with adulthood, there won't be many jobs available.

Roughly 20 percent of teens aged 13-18 years old experience severe mental disorders in a given year.

According to a 2011 Social Policy Report by the Society for Research in Child Development, over 1 million American youth end up in juvenile court every year.

The answer to these concerns may lie between your teen's headphones. Let's look at the four secrets of why teenagers need their music, and how music therapy might help.

Music is Your Teen's Language
Your teen is trying to make sense of a world that often doesn't make sense. "Music appeals to many teens who discover that the words in popular songs often express their own feelings and experiences," says clinical social worker Kathryn Rudlin. "Teens tend to gravitate to music describing what they are feeling and what is important to them."

What is the connection between personality and music?

"In many ways music defines teens, it is a type of language for them and music choices often determine which peers they hang out with. Music can get inside their personality and interests and can be a very emotional experience. Research shows that music affects every part of the brain, including our emotions and the brain chemicals transmitting information throughout the body." Davida Price, Music Therapist - Board Certified

When you were in your teens, you probably had your own anthem, your own records or CD collection. You want to tell your teen you've been there, you can empathize. Why doesn't your teen understand?

You may "know better," and you may want to be your teen's sounding board, and you can -- occasionally. In a song, however, the lyrics seem immediate. What the performer is singing appears to be occurring at the same instant the teen is experiencing feelings that mirror the theme of the song. "At the highest station, the auditory cortex, just above your ears, these firing cells generate the conscious experience of music," explains William J. Cromie, Harvard University. "Different patterns of firing excite other ensembles of cells, and these associate the sound of music with feelings, thoughts, and past experiences."

But you have great taste in music, right? Better than the junk that's playing these days, you may think. When your child was younger, maybe you shared your favorites in the car on the way to school. But when your sweet little child became a teen, he or she wanted to play something different. Something awful. What happened?

Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of This Is Your Brain on Music, was the first to present evidence that a person's musical taste is imprinted by the age of 14. Parents struggling to make sense of their teen's musical taste may not hear music the same way their teen does, because an adult's taste is already largely solidified. Levitin goes on to say that if you cranked the tunes back in your teens, it's possible you damaged your hearing. That literally prohibits you from hearing music like your kid.

Partial deafness aside, you're probably tired of listening to your teen playing the same songs over and over. Why do teenagers do that?

People Are Strange (When You're a Stranger
Teens are seeking identity and exploring the self. Whether your teen prefers pounding rap or ear-piercing punk rock, hormonally-charged personal belief systems are wrapped up in these choices. "Many times I hear adolescents say that they can relate to music that is dark, depressing, or angry," says board-certified music therapist Brooke Sinang. "It can be extremely validating and therapeutic for teens to be able to process these emotions and learn more about themselves in order to effectively change."

Researchers found that children who were given music therapy exhibited increased self-esteem and reduced depressive symptoms. They also significantly improved their communication and interactive skills compared with participants who received only traditional therapy.

Before age 12, most kids seek a parent's help to effectively deal with internal and external conflicts. They are more apt to embrace their family's values system, believing the parent has most, if not all, of the solutions. As children enter adolescence, their development depends in part on their willingness to set out on their own in search of becoming authentic individuals. In order to do that, your teen has to contend with your imperfections, and possibly experience disillusionment.

So what does your teen want you to remember?
Music is your teen's language. The words in popular songs often express teens' own feelings and experiences. Research shows that adults can't physically hear music the way teens do, so try to stop judging their choices.

Your teen is exploring identity. Bonding with peers who enjoy the same music and exploring musical genres helps your teen understand the self. Rocking out to favorite bands is a legitimate path to self-discovery.

Read Why Teens Need Their Music, Part II, to learn about how music can better prepare your child for the future, and why loud music helps heal the poisoned pressures of social media.

Rebecca Laclair is the author of RADIO HEAD. She interviews bands, mentors teen writers, and sincerely enjoys her sons' drum practices. Get acquainted at www.RadioHeadBook.com.

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