Child Anxiety Treatment Should Be Like Piano Lessons
Imagine a child attends piano lessons once a week, but never practices any other time.
And after a few lessons, the child's parents conclude,
"He is not improving at all...these piano lessons just aren't working...what a waste of time and money!"
That sounds silly, right?
Because we all know that if someone wants to progress in any skill, they must practice it!
Why is it then that so many think this idea doesn't hold true for a child attending therapy?
Well, I am on a perception changing mission!
Let’s look at anxiety treatment through the lens of five principles of successful piano lessons.
Principle #1: Practice Throughout the Week
Piano teachers assign their students musical compositions to practice outside of class.
Because they know that without sustained practice, students will not improve.
This seems like common sense, right?
And our innate common sense happens to be backed up by brain-science.
The brain needs continued repetition to create the new neural pathways required for the acquisition of piano playing skills.
As the commonly quoted expression goes, "Neurons that fire together wire together."
This principle is also essential in child therapy.
Each session the child needs to be given specific activities to practice outside of session.
This serves to reinforce the skills the child is learning in therapy and generalize them to real-life situations.
This is the core of the work, what creates and strengthens those ever-important neural pathways.
Principle #2: Find Each Student's Sweet Spot
Piano teachers need to carefully calibrate their material to the current musical level of each student.
If the teacher assigns a composition that is too difficult, this could create frustration and discouragement in the student.
And these qualities are not what make for a motivated, enthusiastic piano student.
But, on the other hand, if the teacher assigns compositions that are too easy, the student will not progress nor feel the confidence that only comes from a sense of genuine accomplishment.
So, the job of the teacher must be to find that sweet spot.
This means assigning pieces that will require struggle and frustration, but not so much that it becomes completely overwhelming.
This can take a bit of trial and error.
And so it is with child therapy.
Like the piano teacher, the therapist will look for the child's sweet spot.
The child will need to be nudged forward...and yes, feel uncomfortable...but not overwhelmed.
Let's say, for example, that Jessica follows her mom from room to room, never letting her out of her sight.
And, thus far, mom has gone along with it, staying close at hand to avoid a melt-down.
Well, as you can imagine, it wouldn’t be ideal for mom to suddenly go out for the entire night, leaving Jessica with a new babysitter.
But, for Jessica to grow, it will be necessary to start moving in that direction.
But, it doesn’t have to start all at once like the Big Bang.
Although with that said, current research is indicating that in anxiety treatment, we are often being way too cautious...that we can move forward much faster than previously thought...
And that's good news.
But, even then, there’s still that “sweet spot.”
Principle #3: Provide a Nurturing Supportive Learning Environment
A piano teacher knows that providing a nurturing and supportive learning environment is every bit as important as delivering musical expertise.
The teacher must seize every opportunity to provide encouragement to her student.
At the same time, the teacher must not ignore the areas that need improvement.
She must draw on her student’s existing resources as a bridge to create new ones.
As well as communicate that progress is rarely linear.
But, that with consistency and diligence, there will be an overall upward trajectory.
And the teacher must also reflect the unequivocal belief in the student's ability...especially during setbacks.
And so too with child therapy.
Growth in therapy involves hope and courage, and is optimized through the therapist's encouragement and positive expectancy.
But, like the piano teacher, the therapist also must provide the knowledge and new skills... and, of course, that ever-important nudge forward.
Principle #4: Feed the Student's Desire's and Passions
A good piano teacher does not impose her musical taste on the student.
If the teacher wants to keep the student's interest, the teacher needs to ask what would make the lessons worthwhile for that student.
Does the student want to learn songs from a favorite artist?
Or dream about becoming a songwriter or playing with a band?
For the lessons to be truly meaningful, they need to be about feeding the student's passion, not about pleasing the teacher or mom or dad.
And it's the same with child therapy.
We need to find out what's important for the child sitting in front of us.
What does this child hope for...what would make therapy seem worthwhile for them?
And for our younger children, we may need to sweeten the deal with an external reward...to work on a “family goal”.
Rewards can provide that extra boost of motivation and a spirit of fun to do something that’s otherwise quite difficult...especially when the child is content with the status quo.
Back to Jessica...she certainly doesn't want to stay alone with a babysitter while her mom goes out for the night.
But...she really does want to go to that slumber party with all her friends.
She knows that if her worries hold her back, she will be missing out on a ton of fun.
And worse, she believes that if she doesn’t go, she won't be as tight with the other girls...
Because, after all, this party is shaping up to be the "event of the year."
So, for Jessica, attending the slumber party will be her goal...and the hook for the broader family goal.
Principle #5: It's Recital Time!
The teacher knows how hard the students have worked...the sweat, the tears.
The teacher also knows how important it is to cement and consolidate all that development...
And that the best way for the students to do that is to share their new skills with an audience.
This is not a test of talent.
It's a test of the will and determination of each student.
Most will feel like a ball of nerves as they wait for their turn to perform.
But, despite that, each student will walk out onto the stage, sit down at the piano, and play.
Perfection is not, and cannot be, the goal.
Getting out there and doing it is the goal!
And so it is with the anxious child.
The child needs to go out and do it.
And it's that slumber party that will be Jessica’s “recital”.
And, of course, she'll be nervous...as we all are when the time of our "recital" arrives.
But, Jessica is ready.
She has acquired new resources and skills.
She has built and strengthened her neural pathways through consistent practice.
She has a goal of achieving something that is important to her.
As Jessica finishes packing her overnight bag, she thinks out loud,
“Slumber party here I come...nerves and all...I can handle it though...bring it on.”
Bonus Principle: Bring in Humor and Energy
Don’t let this principle’s bonus status fool you for a moment into thinking it’s any less important than the other principles.
No student wants a stern, serious piano teacher that buries the joy of music and learning.
They want a teacher that will bring lightheartedness, energy, and fun to the craft.
And the same goes for therapy.
Anxiety already brings such seriousness to a child and family's life.
It wants us all to stay very serious.
It also wants your child to remain passive...to avoid engaging.
Action is the opposite of passivity.
Getting out there and doing it, despite the discomfort and uncertainty.
Opposite emotions compete and anxiety needs some competition.
So, a therapist needs to infuse fun, humor, energy, and action into each session.
In fact, humor and action may just be Anxiety’s number one and number two nemesis!!
Helping Anxious Kids is here to support your family. If you are seeking anxiety treatment for your child and my approach resonates with you, schedule an appointment today.