Stress. We all deal with it from time to time….and friends, so do our kids. Don’t forget – we have a lifetime of experience in managing stress – and even then we can have a hard time with it. Our kids deal with stress, too…and they are stress novices. It’s up to us to help them develop the skills and methods to cope with stress in their young lives. As it turns out, and this is in no way by accident, music and movement, the very things at which we are experts, are fantastic ways to alleviate stress. Science lights the way. Let’s check it out!
You Can’t Protect Them from Stress – But You Can Help Them Manage It
It’s going to happen. We want to be the shield that blocks out every negative thing in the world for our kids – but this is an emotional response. We hate to see them struggle. Remember, you aren’t always going to be there. So providing tools to manage stress when it crops up is incredibly important.
Encourage your child to name the stressor out loud – to label it. When you take time to listen, listen to understand rather than to respond. A child will sense that how they are feeling is important to you and will be more likely to share those feelings. The very fact that you are listening will have a positive effect on the child’s stress level.
But what about movement and music? How does that impact stress levels?
Dance Lowers Cortisol Levels and Increases Endorphins
Here’s the science: dancing actually lowers levels of cortisol in the body. While cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, does many other things for us, it is associated with stress. High stress leads to high levels of cortisol which can lead to reduced immune system function. So…dancing can reduce the presence of cortisol in the system that otherwise might negatively impact your ability to fight off a cold or fight infection.
Dancing also causes the body to produce endorphins, which basically run interference with pain receptors and cause feelings of euphoria, reducing both physical and emotional pain. It’s our body’s way of self-regulating. Kids can get their own body on their side in dealing with stress levels – literally by dancing the stress away (or at the very least reducing its negative effects).
Dancing with Others = Added Benefits
Guess what? When you dance, it feels good. When you dance with others, the benefits increase. The University of Oxford recently conducted a study about dancing in groups verses dancing alone. The results were quite interesting:
So when the volunteers were taught the same dance moves and heard the same songs as the others, their movements synchronized on the dance floor. Now, afterwards, these volunteers were able to withstand significantly more pain. Their threshold for pain increased.
By contrast, the volunteers who heard different songs or were taught different dance moves to the same music didn’t synchronize their movements. These volunteers experienced either no change in their pain perception or an increase in their pain perception. They actually felt more pain than they did before…
As a social species, being part of a group has survival value. Evolution also may have adapted the brain to experience a sense of reward when we did things with and for other people. Dancing together, especially in the synchrony, can signal that you are actually simpatico with lots of other people. The researchers think this is why so many cultures have synchronized dancing and why it might have health benefits.
So – when you dance with a group – to the same music, these benefits really show themselves. Another study from West Chester University of Pennsylvania has shown that dance and music programs significantly lower cortisol levels in children from low-income families and “alleviate the impact of poverty on children’s physiological functioning.”
And How Does Music Fit In?
As it turns out – singing and dancing are twins. They are both art forms that are temporal, meaning they unfold and reveal their beauty over time. They are dynamic. They change. They engage the entire body and mind. They both require conscious control over the breath. The breath must be purposeful to have enough fuel to do the task at hand. All the mental health benefits of dance can be found in singing – increased endorphins and lower cortisol levels among them. When making music with a group, empathy for those around you increases and heartbeats become synchronized (a really amazing phenomenon called biological entrainment – we’ll talk about that some other time!). We talk about this often; here’s a breakdown from a previous Minds on Music post:
The Combination of Movement and Music develops:
- The Vestibular System.
A well-developed vestibular system provides emotional security, good muscle tone, develops auditory language processing, visual-spatial processing, and reduced cortisol levels.
- Neural Pathways.
Moving in a variety of ways gives your child a chance to ‘see the world’ from many perspectives, thus strengthening neural pathways, which carry messages from your child’s mind, guiding her senses and motor skills.
- Fine Motor Skills.
During the first part of life, we’re learning to walk, so gross motor activities dominate the child’s movement. Now she can focus on activities that encourage the development of fine muscles, so she can increase skills that require finger and hand movements such as putting together a simple puzzle, painting with a paintbrush, turning a page of a book or stringing beads.
- Physical Confidence.
Body awareness is important in the development of the child’s physical confidence. This developmental goal may be met by engaging in movement activities which focus on body part movement, whole body movement in one place, and whole body movement while traveling in space.
- Creativity and Imagination.
Listening and responding to music and movement activities helps develop pretend play skills while also helping your child assimilate music and movement concepts such as fast, slow, loud, quiet, bumpy, smooth, straight and curvy.
- Thinking Skills.
While in motion, the brain acts like a flight simulator, constantly inventing, moving mental models to project onto a changing world. This is an extraordinary mentally complex operation which builds thinking skills.
A child that can express herself when dealing with stress, and then have an outlet to safely and physically work that stress out, encouraging the body to self-regulate, is a happier child. A child that has the opportunity to sing and dance with others develops empathic skills that allow him to see the world from the perspective of his friends. To put this in the simplest terms, a dancing and singing child is a healthier child, a child who deals with stress much more effectively.
And by the way…this applies to us, too, my friends. Sing and dance with your child! You might even laugh a bit…and that’s healthy, too!
For more info on dance and stress, check out Yami Joshi’s TEDTalk on Dance and Stress.