Stage fright

Drama trauma -- helping kids cope with performance anxiety

My eight-year-old daughter loved her Saturday morning drama classes — until she found out about the end-of-season play on a real stage in front of (gulp) a real audience. She immediately wanted to pack it in.

Many children — like many adults — panic at the thought of performing in public. “It’s a perfectly normal reaction, especially as kids get older and have a sense of people taking stock of what they’re doing,” says Daniel Lagacé-Séguin, an associate professor of psychology at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.

While a little anxiety, handled properly, can actually help kids perform better, too much can cause them to freeze up and forget what they’re supposed to do. Here’s how to help them get stage fright under control.

Practise until (nearly) perfect
“Being prepared is key, so practise with your child as much as you think he needs it,” says Lagacé-Séguin. “If he’s confident he knows his stuff, he won’t be as afraid of making a mistake.”

Tip Start early. There’s nothing more anxiety provoking than waiting until Sunday night to start practising for a Monday morning front-of-the-class book report.
Take it seriously
“Don’t pooh-pooh an upcoming performance by saying ‘You’ll be fine,’” says Lagacé-Séguin. You want your child to know that you understand and are there to help. Talk about your own fearful experiences and how you handled them.

Tip Be careful not to focus on her moment in the spotlight too much. “Like everything else in parenting, there’s that fine balance you try to find,” says Lagacé-Séguin.

Show, don’t tell
Kids need a lot of modelling to get comfortable with speaking in public, says Pina Swastek, a Toronto elementary school teacher. Don’t assume your child knows what “good eye contact” means. Show her.

Tip To keep her from talking too softly, remind your child to use the same voice she does with friends. “Kids don’t whisper to each other,” says Swastek.

Praise the good stuff
Kids don’t need you to point out when they stumble over a word or forget a sentence. “If you’re too critical, it increases their anxiety,” says Lagacé-Séguin. Praise the positive — a strong voice or nice animation, for example.

Tip Feedback is important, but you don’t want to overwhelm or demoralize your young orator. Try to limit constructive criticism to one or two pointers: “Don’t forget to look up” or “Slow down a little,” for example.

Offer lots of reassurance
Let your child know that it’s normal to feel anxious and that most of his friends probably do too. Once he gets going, chances are he’ll feel more relaxed.

Tip To help your child develop poise and self-confidence, find activities that promote performing and speaking, such as drama and choir.