How I tried to conquer my kid’s performance anxiety

"Like her mom, Camilla will dance like nobody’s watching, until it turns out someone is."

performance-anxiety-blog

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For a Jew, I hear a lot of Christmas carols around the house. And not only during the holidays. A fly on the wall might think Santa Claus was coming to town at Easter. Or that my kids couldn’t fall asleep without my abridged version of “Silent Night.” And those “Angels We Have Heard on High” I heard wafting out of the pool this summer? Yes, it was, and was, and was.

So I was thrown recently when I turned up to my daughter Camilla’s grade one Nativity show to find a row of 29 faces singing merrily, plus the back of one head that, judging by the botched home haircut, belonged to me. I can’t say I didn’t chuckle at the kid who, faced with mobs of tablet-wielding adults tripping over school benches to capture the scene, had chosen to simply turn her back. That was my nervous response to her nervous response to what’s become a nerve-wracking tradition: the school performance.

It’s not only the holiday spectacle for which we parents are expected to supply bums on seats, of course. There’s the summer revue, the dance recital… Ask my neighbours and they’d say the capoeira expo is the year’s hottest ticket. But make no mistake: the exceedingly PC Christmas-Kwanza-Hannukah show is the thing.

Try explaining that to the five-year-old who’s been working on her exit plan since Halloween. “You mean you already know ‘O Tannenbaum,’ Mummy? Good, then neither of us need to go.”

I can sympathize. I may not see myself in her fine blonde hair and saucer eyes, but when Camilla grasps onto my leg at parties, or lowers her eyes when spoken to by anyone over the age of 16, I flash back to my 1970s self. When I hear happy gabbling coming from the playroom, then inch open the door just in time to hear her screech, “Don’t look at me!” I remember how my own free play could turn into a chore as soon as an audience appeared. Like her mom, Camilla will dance like nobody’s watching—until it turns out someone is.

Like many young kids, she has the added stress of being obsessive compulsive, wanting all her expressions of creativity—from the clothes she wears to her boxy handwriting—to be perfect. Even worse, she believes her parents have expectations of perfection, though that’s far from the case and we tell her so. It comes with the territory. That pressure is debilitating, real and possibly not just a phase. Researchers who study child anxiety have measured cortisol levels in student musicians as young as three and observed spikes that were comparable to that of adult performers.

There are kids in Camilla’s class who are so mortified by the widest definition of “performance” that they won’t answer to the morning roll call. And yet educators insist on these “necessary holiday traditions,” as if kids are cats to be dressed up for Instagram. It makes me wonder: who is the holiday show really for?

Still, I can’t blame anybody—least of all Jesus—for Camilla’s inauspicious stage career. Au contraire, this is but a symptom to a problem I think we should tackle head-on. Isn’t that what Jesus would do?

In this spirit, last year I enrolled Camilla in her sister’s beloved drama class. It went as well as could be expected, which is to say: not great. There were stand-offs and strikes before drop-off—even if she appeared nothing short of exhilarated at pick-up time. In my absence she seemed to be getting something valuable from this exercise, and the instructor agreed, encouraging us both to carry on with baby steps. Easy for him to say: when the time came for the year-end show, Camilla resolutely refused to go through with it, cowering on my lap to watch it from the bleachers. A lucky two-and-a-half-foot understudy got her big break that day.

Well, the show must go on. And this season, Camilla has requested I not even bother showing up.

“I don’t like it,” she tells me, “when you smile and wave.”

If that’s what it’ll take to settle her comfortably in character, so be it. She never said I couldn’t peek in through the glass door.

Anyway, I think it’s the best solution for both of us. My cortisone levels are through the roof. Frankly, I can’t deal with the stress.

Tips for parents

• Giving positive feedback, however a kid performs, is key. Applause makes us all feel good.

• Encourage kids to practise their role until it becomes second nature. Then have them practise in front of people, and in different environments. If they know they can do it, their nerves likely won’t get the better of them.

• Put it in perspective. Performing is not life-threatening.

• Lay off the criticism, however mild, directly after the performance. Kids know the mistakes they made. No need to highlight them.

• Give your kid a choice. If they don’t want Mom and Dad there, have someone film it for you.

• Don’t let it spook you. If you’ve enrolled them in a music, drama or sports program, keep it up. It takes time to build confidence, find friends and blossom. And whatever confidence they’ve built can disappear fast if you pull them out.

Ellen Himelfarb lives in London, England with her husband and two daughters. Only one of them will be participating in her class performance this month. 

Read more:
Anxiety disorders in children>
Stage fright: How to help kids with performance anxiety>
Performance anxiety: Should you push your kids?>

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