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How to Calm Performance Jitters

The recital was supposed to be fun, but Alex Toy, then 5, of South Pasadena, CA, was miserable. "He kept hiding behind the boy in front of him," says his mom. "My heart went out to him because I saw how unhappy he was."

Stage fright among school-age kids isn't uncommon, says Vivian Friedman, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist in Birmingham, AL. They may cry or get a stomachache before going on, or make up excuses not to participate. "And they feel especially anxious once all eyes are on them," says Friedman.

It's important to help kids conquer these fears, since they may be asked to perform throughout school in concerts, plays, and group presentations. "Learning to feel comfortable in front of an audience gives children a foundation they can draw on whenever they have to speak in public," says Friedman. To help your child shine under the spotlight:

  • Make your living room a stage. Ask him to give an informal talk at home about what he did at school that day, or to play the piano for visiting grandparents or family friends, recommends Charles Scott, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis. Gaining experience in a familiar setting will help put him at ease once he has to perform in a public forum.

  • Schedule (short) practice sessions. You can calm fears by rehearsing with your child, but don't overdo it. After he nails the performance once or twice, call it a day. Too many run-throughs in a row can make him tired, which will lead to mistakes and increased nervousness.

  • Focus on fun. Explain that the point of performing is to have a good time. And avoid comparing him with others onstage: "The experience shouldn't be competitive. The higher the expectations, the more frightened kids feel," says Dr. Scott. Also, reassure your trouper that slip-ups are normal and that you'll be proud of him even if the performance isn't perfect.

  • Teach relaxation techniques. Show him how to take a few deep breaths before a performance to calm down. Or ask him to close his eyes and think of a favorite activity, such as swinging or drawing.

  • Send some moral support on stage. Kids often feel more secure with a small stuffed animal or special toy tucked in a pocket, or even held in plain view. As long as it doesn't detract from the show, "let him do whatever makes him feel comfortable," says Friedman.

  • Encourage him to face his fear. If he's reluctant to step in front of an audience, try to persuade your child by reassuring him that he knows his lines. But don't force him. After the show, find something to compliment him on, even if you say, "I like the way you walked onstage." Friedman says, "The more positive you can be, the more confident he'll feel about performing again."
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