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by    Anthony Kane, MD
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Dance Therapy in ADHD and Depression

Recently a very interesting pilot study was completed in Sweden. Researchers investigated the effects of dance therapy in two very different groups of children, young ADHD boys and depressed teenage girls. The four year study was carried out at the Clinic for Child and Youth Psychiatry in Karlstad and was completed in 2005. The project, which was a collaborative effort involving the University College of Dance in Stockholm, the Department of Public Health Science at Karlstad University, and the Clinic for Child and Youth Psychiatry in Karlstad, involved children living in the province of Varmland, Sweden.

The ADHD Study

There were six boys in the ADHD study age 5-7. These children were considered hyperactive and unruly by their teachers and parents.

The therapy started with the children moving with all their energy. Then new components were added where the children needed to listen and mimic, play to music, play roles, and then perform slower and slower motions.

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The results of the study in the ADHD boys were quite striking. The most dramatic effect of the dance therapy was that the boys calmed down. Their parents and teachers reported that they did their schoolwork better. One boy who could only sit in a classroom for ten minutes previously, after receiving dance therapy was able to attend an entire lesson.

These six boys also showed improvement in social skills. The boys were better able to play with other children without getting into conflict and fights.

It may seem surprising to encourage increased activity and movement for boys whose basic problem is that they move too much and have difficulty remaining calm. However, this initial study seems to indicate that dance therapy works.

The Depression Study

Adolescent depression, particularly bipolar depression is a growing problem in children. Adolescent bipolar depression is extremely difficult to treat, and when left untreated can have very serious consequences.

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The depression study involved eleven teenage girls age 13-17, who suffered from depression and self-destructive tendencies. This type of child is particularly difficult to treat using normal therapeutic techniques. Since these teenagers usually prefer to remain silent and not express what is disturbing them, normal conversation based therapy does not work well.

The dance therapy proved to be a good way to increase their energy level and enhance their joy of living. Certain dance styles, flamenco for example, helped give the girls an increased sense of pride and improved their self-esteem. The overall effect was that the girls were happier and the depression was alleviated.


The research team investigating the effects of movement therapy concluded that dance therapy showed promise in both groups of children and can be very useful when other more traditional treatments fail or are insufficient.

However, although these studies are promising, the number of children in both of these groups was very small. Therefore, no sweeping conclusions should be drawn at this time. However, the fact that many of the families wished to continue with dance therapy after the conclusion of the study indicates that at least in their minds, the treatment program was a success.

Still much needs to be learned regarding dance as a therapeutic treatment in child and adolescent psychiatry. First of all, there is no proven explanation for why it is effective. Certainly, no one is suggesting that dance movement therapy does anything more than alleviate the symptoms of ADHD and adolescent depression. The therapy does not address the root cause of these problems. Also, it is not clear from the study how long the effects of dance therapy last. Particularly in the ADHD group, the treatment had to be repeated often.

The success in this study suggests that movement based therapy may play a helpful role in treating certain psychiatric illnesses. It also suggests that other structured physical activity, such as sports may be an approach to helping ADHD and depressed children. Many parents of ADHD children report that their children do much better when they participate in sports.

Still as of yet, no studies have been done evaluating the role of sports involvement in ADHD children. In fact, this initial pilot study is the first attempt to investigate any form of physical activity in ADHD.

At present, dance therapy is not used as a form of treatment in child and youth psychiatry. This project was the first attempt to try and scientifically assess dance therapy as a form of treatment for ADHD and Depression.

Anthony Kane, MD

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