Sharing music can ease strained relationships

JUL 4, 2022 9:00 AM

Sharing Music Rescued My Relationship With My Teenager

by Sarah Gundle

I texted her Joni Mitchell, she sent me songs of her own. Slowly, my daughter began to open up to me again.

Two pairs of headphones connected by a single wire on a light green background

IT STARTED BY accident. At the suggestion of a friend, I sent my 15-year-old the Belle and Sebastian song “If You’re Feeling Sinister.”

“Cool song,” she texted back. “I like it.” It was only five words, but it was the most she’d intentionally communicated to me in months.

Over the previous few years, my once vivacious daughter had turned sullen, anger and resentment coiled around her. Several factors seemed to contribute to this. Covid-19 certainly played a big part in her darkening, depriving her of her middle school graduation, her prom, and the busy social life that had fed her extroverted personality. But her friends had also suffered losses, and I didn’t know any who had holed up in their rooms and stopped speaking to their parents. Somehow, I had become the enemy, and nothing seemed to bridge the growing chasm between us.

For years, we had been a team. A single mom, I had leaned on her, and she on me, more than was usual in a mother-daughter relationship. But all that had changed.

“I’m trying to understand you,” I told her one day, careful not to make eye contact.

“I just don’t want you to know me anymore,” she responded. “I don’t even know myself!”

She was right, of course. How could I know her if she didn’t know herself? It had become clear to me that our unusual closeness was actually part of the problem. She needed to break away from me, but how could she do that while I was trying to prop her up? We needed a new way of connecting.

A few hours after her text, during which I could hear the Belle and Sebastian song playing on a loop, she emerged from her room and sat down to lunch with her sister and me for the first time in weeks. I tried to engage her, asking a few tentative questions: How was her science project going, where was her best friend going to camp this summer? It was soon clear that I’d flubbed it. She stormed back to her room and slammed the door behind her.

As a psychologist, I traffic in words—I felt out of my depth communicating through music. So, I called my friend Shannon Lorraine, a former musician in the Seattle band Witholders.

“Try this,” she said, “‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,’ by Neutral Milk Hotel. But don’t get too excited when she expresses interest. Play it cool.”

I sent my daughter the song and repressed my urge to follow up with a text. This time, she came out of her room for a couple of hours. I called Shannon and told her, “I feel like you’re a snake charmer. Tell me what to do next.”

She continued recommending songs, and gradually the cloud around us dissipated a little. But words were still hard to come by.

Eventually, Shannon ran out of recommendations. For a time, I let Spotify take over and it offered up songs from bands I’d never heard of: The Postal ServiceFrançoise HardyBeirut. But if I wanted a relationship with my daughter, I realized I couldn’t rely on an algorithm, so I began making my own suggestions: Stevie WonderThe BeatlesJoni MitchellThe Cure, and a favorite from my childhood—Malvina Reynolds. These were little snippets of my past, of me, that I hoped might connect us in ways words seemingly couldn’t.

“Music,” says Claudia Diez, a psychologist in Manhattan, “has the power to create diverse primal physiological responses in us. It can be an expression of who we are and even be an effective means of communicating our wants, desires, and emotional needs.” 

Brian Harris, a music psychotherapist and faculty member at New York University, agrees. “Songs carry these multidimensional layers of our stories. A piece of music we are connected to will always tell a story about where we are in that particular moment,” he says.

Harris describes music as a kind of Rosetta Stone with which to unlock the mysteries of adolescence. “Music is wrapped up in our identity—choosing to listen to and honor their music is also choosing to listen to and honor their identities. Teenage years are about the push and pull of identity development, and music is the literal soundtrack to that development.”

My assumption had been that words would lead my daughter out of her miasma of depression and anger. But I was wrong. Music, on the other hand, seemed able to strike emotional chords beyond the reach of language.

Diez was not surprised when I told her this. “Music stimulates the release of neurotransmitters (i.e. dopamine) implicated in different mood states,” she says. “Music can also induce the production of oxytocin, the hormone implicated in the experience of love and attachment.”

In my sometimes-bumbling experiment in musical communication, I learned some strategies.

First, check out your child’s Spotify account to see what songs they like, and what new playlists they have added. Seeing what my daughter added on a given week revealed a great deal to me about her mood. We have a family account, which allows up to six individual profiles, keeping our music separate but still allowing us to see what we add.

Second, whole albums never have the same punch as single songs. But when you send a song, be honest about why you did so. At first, when my daughter asked me to explain my selections, I tried too hard to sound like an expert. I hadn’t even finished my soliloquy about “Anyone Else But You,” by The Moldy Peaches, when she walked away, muttering: “You learned that from Google.” The next time she asked, after I had sent her Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” I answered honestly. “You know,” I said, “it feels like I’m back in high school—I can almost feel that time in my bones, like I will look around and see Seattle streets.” That answer led to us poring over an old photo album she’d never shown the slightest interest in before.

Third, whole playlists can work, but they must be well-timed and thoughtful. Ahead of a big chemistry test, I sent her a “Nervous” playlist. Ahead of her second date with a girl, I sent her a “Kiss” playlist, starting (of course) with the Katy Perry song “I Kissed a Girl.” And don’t go too general: “Happy songs” or “Dark songs” flopped.  Occasionally, my daughter answers my playlists with her own. After her date, she poignantly sent me the Foreigner song “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Shannon nodded when I told her how moved I am when I get a song or playlist from my daughter. “It’s like the best love letter,” she says.

Fourth, build music into your weekly rituals. “Become a house of music,” Shannon tells me. I took this suggestion literally and metaphorically. I bought four inexpensive Bluetooth speakers that paired easily to our phones and placed them throughout our apartment. I chose ones that could use dual speaker mode, which I found makes a big difference in sound quality when we have groups of people over. I also started making playlist mixes, starting with a sleep mix that we keep adding to over time. We now also have a cooking mix, a driving mix, a homework mix, and a putting-on-makeup mix. I’ve started doing this with my 6-year-old as well, putting together a Lego mix and a Polly Pocket mix.

Fifth, you must be judgment-free. Harris reiterates how important it is to drop all of your assumptions and be genuinely open to whatever moves them. “It’s not about prescriptive music— it’s about attuning to your teenager’s musical choices and approaching them with curiosity,” he says. In other words, we may think we know what a certain song means, but we don’t know what it means to our kids. 

The other day, my daughter approvingly asked me, “are you singing a Harry Styles song?” I was, and I noticed, with much satisfaction, that she was humming the tune to “Heartbreaker,” by Dionne Warwick, while we made pancakes. We might not like all the songs we share, but we have learned so much about each other through sharing them.

I don’t know if music has made my daughter stop seeing me as her nemesis, but I have a strong feeling that as we cross into the next phase of our relationship, “The Long and Winding Road” might be playing in the background.

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