From the preschool holiday program to an oral book report to high school musical auditions, kids are challenged throughout their school careers to perform before an audience. For many, it comes naturally, but others struggle with feelings of anxiety—classically known as stage fright.
“Feeling self-conscious is fundamental to the human experience—as a profoundly social species, we have evolved through connectedness and interdependence with one another,” said Green Brooms Music Academy music teacher Sara Garcia. “Our earliest ancestors kept each other safe through cooperation and acceptance, and the primal desire for acceptance is a vestige of very real and immediate threats to a human’s safety outside of community.”
Though it’s natural to experience stage fright, children are encouraged to overcome it for the benefits of participating in the performing arts:
Improved cognitive, social, and motor development.
Practicing skills like improvisation and quick thinking.
Exploring a wider range of emotions through performance.
Building confidence and learning to manage anxiety.
Fortunately, you can help your reluctant star manage their stage fright and even grow their self-esteem through a public performance.
“Gradually facing a feared situation, what we know as exposure, is one of the most effective ways to overcome anxiety, fears, and phobias. It helps to desensitize, build a higher tolerance level, build confidence, and reduce the anxieties surrounding performing,” said licensed professional counselor Andrea R. Tarantella.
Clues your child might have stage fright
Tarantella noted children with stage fright might experience physical symptoms that are not immediately visible to parents, like stomachaches, nausea, racing heart, dizziness, and headache. But here are other signs you may see:
Avoiding class presentations or playing in sports events
Negative self talk about their abilities
Expressing fear of embarrassment
“With stage fright, parents can expect to see their child experience physical symptoms of stress, show a heightened fear of being evaluated in some way by others, and struggle with memory or with concentrating during performances,” Tarantella said.
Tips to help with childhood stage fright
Music teacher Dana Vachharajani said first, parents should acknowledge that stage fright is real. “Sometimes as busy parents, we might chalk up stage fright to shyness or that our children don’t like an activity, but in reality, stage fright is a condition that needs to be approached with understanding and attention. The good news is there are lots of options to help alleviate symptoms,” she said.
Try these suggestions, from both Tarantella and Vachharajani:
Continue to give your child opportunities for public performance with gradual exposure.
Create a supportive environment so kids feel safe expressing their fears about performance.
Celebrate every little success when they perform.
Before a performance, encourage your child to practice in front of one family member or a few immediate family members. When they are comfortable, have them practice for someone less familiar.
According to Tarantella, avoid these reactions to your child’s stage fright:
Dismissing the child’s feelings
Forcing them into uncomfortable situations
Comparing their child to others who don’t have stage fright
Using criticism or guilt
Ignoring the issue altogether
Also, depending on your child’s age, you may approach stage fright differently.
Helping your kids with stage fright in elementary school
Very young children may appear shy or cling to parents when it’s time to perform.
“In some situations, a child may struggle to emotionally regulate and have a tantrum or start to cry,” Tarantella said. “At the elementary school level, nervous habits begin to develop like fidgeting, biting their nails, or twirling their hair.”
You may need to get teachers’ and coaches’ support to help them build confidence.
“There might be times when your kind and patient support are enough and then there are going to be moments when we need a team,” Vachharajani said. “If stage fright is happening in school, please let the teacher know to start small with the activities in class that are public facing. Discuss with coaches, dance teachers, and other trusted people in their lives.”
Helping your kids with stage fright in middle school
Tweens and teens are known for their self-consciousness, comparing themselves to peers, and growing concerns about social status.
“Around these ages, stage fright can look a lot like avoidance and/or defiance if they are so anxious that they’ll defy an authority figure or get a bad grade to prevent them from having to perform,” Tarantella said.
Vachharajani suggests these tips for helping a reluctant middle schooler:
Don’t push too hard. Pressure and long discussions about stage fright may cause them to shut down.
Recognize it can take some children years to be comfortable with public performance as they work through their emotions about it.
“Stage fright doesn’t disappear overnight or after the first successful presentation,” she said. “We have to be aware that this might manifest itself in other situations. Be supportive and start with simple steps.”
Helping your kids with stage fright in high school
In high school, parents may need to back off and let teens explore their independence when it comes to public performance. However, you can always be available to support them when they show signs of performance anxiety and help them set realistic goals.
Vachharajani suggests using the power of non-verbal affirmations.
“If it’s performance time and there are still some lingering jitters, have them visualize a calm place for them or create a phrase to have them repeat in their mind. If they don’t know where to focus during a performance, choose a comfort focal point they can see. Let your child know where you will be so that they can see you in the audience. If this isn’t possible, have them find a focal point above the heads of the crowd, so that they don’t have to look at faces,” she said.
What if it’s more than just stage fright?
Mild stage fright is temporary nervousness that goes away after the impending performance. Moderate stage fright may include more noticeable symptoms like sweating, racing heart, trembling, and making mistakes. Even then, Tarantella said, there should be no lasting distress after the performance is over.
How can you tell if your child’s level of performance anxiety goes beyond that, and they need professional counseling to help?
“Severe and potentially diagnosable levels of stage fright are when parents will want to be sure that they seek professional help to prevent further impairment and interference in their child’s academic, social and emotional well-being,” Tarantella said. “At this level, parents may see their children struggle with panic attacks, severe self-doubt, intense fear, and avoidance of the performance situation. At this level, parents may notice this anxiety is significantly debilitating, impacting their ability to perform, and also persists over time.”