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A most terrifying time of year

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

As we reach the end of the school year, we are busying ourselves with reports, parent evenings, sports days, summer productions and the odd sporting tournament or dance recital.

While all these are exciting for some, for others it is the most terrifying time of year.

Perhaps you’ve seen a little bit of it in your own child? The ‘butterflies’ before sports day, the uncertainty before they walk up on stage or simply the nervous giggles and peeping around makeshift curtains to the side of the stage.

But what if they start to experience more acute reactions to these situations? Tears, tummy aches and tantrums are all symptoms that accompany the common childhood experience of performance anxiety. This form of anxiety can rear its head in a variety of situations.

Some nervousness before performing is extremely common in children. My own daughter has been on the stage since she was two and a half, and even now we still talk about having butterflies before shows, speeches or matches. However, for some kids, it is far more serious.

When required to perform, many children experience a racing heartbeat, sweating and headaches. But tummy related problems are common, these can take the form of stomach-aches, diarrhoea, or nausea. Children often realise they are blushing which concerns them greatly as it is the most obvious to other people. Anxiety becomes a real problem when the lead-up or aftermath is so stressful that it impacts their normal functioning.

The Why

Why are some children more anxious than others to perform? Through many scientific studies we can narrow it down to three main factors:

1. Temperament or personality that the child is born with.

2. Genetics plays a part as 30% - 40% of any kind of anxiety is understood to be genetic. Anxious adults tend to have anxious children.

3. A learned behaviour, for example there had a negative experience in the past or even a sibling/ close friend say that ‘going on stage is soooooo scary’ or 'don't trip up in the race, everyone will laugh!".

What can we do?

The first step in approaching the subject of their anxiety is to explain that nerves are a natural part of performing. Avoid any statement that sounds like ‘You’ll be fine’, ‘Stop making a fuss’, ‘Don’t worry about it’. Any statement that hints towards judgment will only make it worse. For them it certainly is not ‘fine’, their bodies are in full ‘flight or fight’ mode as their adrenal gland is working overtime. While you have the best of intentions to demonstrate to them that the performance anxiety is no big deal, these kinds of comments serve only to indicate to the child that they are wrong to feel the way they do.

Start with an expression of sympathy to open the communication, for example – “I can see that you are in a tricky situation. Do you want some help to figure a way that you can cope with it?”

Our knee jerk reaction is to pull them out of situation or speak to the coach to get them out of situation, however this is not the best solution in the long run. Unless it is an extreme reaction, we need to build up the child’s inner strength and resilience. However, that been said, the time to face the anxiety is not in the wings with the music starting – the child is not listening to you as they are in a blind panic. This needs to be addressed away from the fearful situation while they are calm and thinking clearly, then after work, they can approach the challenge with a clear plan and technique.

This could take the form of doing the speech privately with the teacher, with the aim to building their confidence to do it in front of the class or going on the stage with only a parent there or mock races with just the class. At Nuhypnosis we use a technique that combines CBT and Hypnotherapy to identify the fear, place it under scrutiny and then rehearse our reaction to the scenario before taking it into the real world. Small steps while continuing to move forward will help develop the life-long skill of confidence.

Education is key to success as understanding anxiety helps to take its power over us away. The best way to calm our brain down is with strategies like mindfulness where we use breathing techniques, relaxing our muscles (my favourite is pasta – we stiffen up like raw pasta and then we relax our muscles like wiggly floppy noodles). Combining rational thoughts and body calming techniques will improve the situation greatly, most importantly we have an open conversation about what is happening in our brain, heart and body.

While these techniques are helpful, for some the anxiety persists. If this is the case then reach out for professional help, anxiety generally does not decrease over time and will prevent your child from fulfilling the requirements of the school curriculum or restrict their ability to cope with normal life. Performance anxiety on its own is not necessarily a sign of an anxiety disorder, however if the it appears alongside other symptoms of anxiety, a professional assessment may be the next step.

If you are unsure but want to find out more, then book a no obligation consult and we can chat it over.

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