An image of a female carer playing a symbol with a stick and a young girl playing a flute with their backs to the camera

Making music with looked-after children and their carers

As part of Music Therapy in Collaboration and Exchange – British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT) conference 2021, Nordoff Robbins music therapist Anna Tyrrell presents a poster presentation entitled: ‘When I play music, all the bad feelings go…’: making music with looked-after children and their carers.

‘When I play music, all the bad feelings go…’: making music with looked-after children and their carers

Anna Tyrrell is a Nordoff Robbins music therapist based in the Bournemouth area. She works in a variety of contexts with both children and adults, but since qualifying in July 2017 she has worked in an area of great personal interest for her, with care-experienced children. She spends three days a week working in different partnerships with children and young people living in foster care.

Music therapy approaches to working with children in care

I was really keen to submit a poster presentation for the BAMT conference 2021, because I had a story to tell connected with the theme of ‘Music Therapy in Collaboration and Exchange’. I also hope that by sharing my story, it would give me the opportunity to forge links with music therapists from other training backgrounds, who are working in this field.

A lot of the literature relating to the difficulties faced by care-experienced children comes from psychodynamic or behavioural psychology perspectives. I am very interested to learn about other music therapy approaches to working with children in care and contrast these with my experience as a music-centred, Nordoff Robbins trained music therapist.

Children who end up in the care system often find it very difficult to trust and form healthy attachments, especially to their foster carers. Their experience of being neglected or abused can cause enduring problems when relating to others. The way these children act at home or school is sometimes dismissed as bad behaviour and naughtiness, rather than a way of communicating their fear, anxiety, worthlessness and a profound lack of self-esteem.

Music therapy has a lot to offer these children as it is a safe space to learn about play, turn-taking, taking risks and ultimately building trust in another person, which in turn contributes to healthier self-esteem.

Talking about their traumatic experiences can be a huge barrier for these children, so the music-centred nature of the Nordoff Robbins approach seems especially helpful. Through clinical work with care-experienced children, I have observed that collaborating with foster carers in the sessions has been especially impactful as a means of cultivating a healthy attachment with their wards.

Barbara's story

My poster explores some general ideas around attachment from psychotherapy literature then presents in more depth the case of a 10-year-old girl living in foster care. Barbara became depressed at the age of four, when she was taken into care, and separated from her siblings who were put up for adoption. After being referred by her teacher in 2017, she took part in weekly music therapy sessions, along with her foster parent, to help improve her low mood. You can read more about her story.

Music therapy offers a safe and engaging space where children in care, and their foster carers, may grow in mutual trust and playful relationship.

I love working in this field as I find it hugely rewarding when a child or young person quite literally finds their voice and sings for the first time (sometimes after months of sessions) or trusts me enough to share a little of their story through collaborative song-writing. At times, the traumatic stories shared by care-experienced children can seem overwhelming and the fact that what I have to offer them is ‘only music’ doesn’t seem adequate to the task. However, what I can offer and strive to do, is to use my music therapy training to listen, to witness, to create a safe space and mirror another way of being through the musical experiences we share together.

I’d really love to hear about your experiences of working in a similar setting and connect – you can get in touch by emailing me Anna.Tyrrell@nordoff-robbins.org.uk