Performance anxiety: Should you push your kids?

Jennifer Pinarski wonders how far we should push our kids to perform if they struggle with anxiety.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

As an introvert, there are few things I dread more than speaking or performing in public (in fact, I told one of my kids’ teachers that I’d rather do lice checks than come and cut a rug at this week’s school Valentine’s Dance). For as long as I can remember, being in the spotlight has made me feel queasy and made my palms sweat. Mandatory grade school performances like speeches and recorder concerts were torture and I recall trying to fake ear aches and illnesses to get out of them.

Because I know how awful stage fright feels, I have a track record of believing my son’s mysterious ailments that seem to pop up just before a school concert. Even though Isaac has been in school for nearly five years, he only has two Christmas concerts to his credit (and yes, that’s likely all my fault). Because of his small size, Isaac was able to hide behind his taller classmates.

Should I have put my empathy and his anxiety in the backseat and made him perform all those years where unexplained tummy aches had him in tears the day of school performances? Dr. Amy Przeworski, an assistant professor in Case Western Reserve University’s psychology department, thinks that the overcoming those fears is important. Dr. Przeworski’s advice appeared in a post last week by Devorah Blachor on the New York Times‘ Motherlode. Blachor shared her own story of watching her son deal with the stress of being on stage. Her seven-year-old spent his performance blinking and rolling his eyes back, so much so that Blachor thought he was having a seizure.

“When you see your child suffering, it’s hard to think straight. Was my anger justified, or was my reaction just a form of helicopter parenting? If I take steps so that Cai doesn’t have to do this again (like by suggesting to the school that children have the option to work on scenery for the Spring Show) am I raising a coddled child who can’t handle adversity?” wonders Blachor in her post.

I’m guilty of that one, too. For example, when Isaac’s teacher asked parents to write a list of their child’s skills I tried to play up his art skills and downplay his acting skills to see if I could get him out of concert duty, or at least get him relegated to the back row instead of centre stage. But, as luck would have it, we moved schools mid-year and Isaac found himself in a key role at the Christmas concert (playing a naughty boy in “Santa Claus is Coming To Town”). Though there was no singing involved, it did require him to sit in front of his classmates in the middle of the stage. Believe me, it was a big deal to him. And we made him do it.

At the end of the concert, the principal congratulated all the students for what was really a flawless concert. What stuck out for me was his recognition of the fact that not all students enjoy performing, but it’s his feeling that all students need to at least once in their school careers experience the thrill, fear and excitement of being on stage.

On the way home Isaac told me about the weird feelings in his stomach and how his hands and lips felt funny while he sat on the stage under the lights. How he felt scared when he couldn’t see us. In return, I told him how proud I felt that he overcame his fears. Years from now I probably won’t recall the specifics of that concert, but I know I will remember feeling so much love for my incredibly brave son.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

Read more:
Stage fright: How to help kids with performance anxiety>
Anxiety disorders in children>

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