Although this article discusses ideas for parents to help their child with performance anxiety, the concepts may be applied more broadly to help you support your child with other forms of anxiety and stress.
It is all well and good to receive information about how to support our children to manage anxiety and stress, but often within therapy I find the most powerful ways to develop ideas, understanding and strategies with parents is sharing stories and examples gleaned from my experiences as a therapist.
This not only provides information in a relatable and practical way, but also helps to normalise our children’s (and parenting) experiences.
Here, I want to share the “example” of a young girl and how her parents handled a stressful situation which triggered struggles with performance anxiety – and then explain some of the strategies mentioned.
The Story of Abigail and her Dancing
Abigail* (not her real name) is a young girl who participates in dancing – this involves competition and performance.
Abigail had a competition several months ago, and in one of her routines made a mistake, and had an anxiety response to this (crying, shaking, negative self talk such as “I can’t do it”, “I did terribly”).
She tried again, however couldn’t remember the routine and became very upset and needed a lot of comfort to calm. Her mum encouraged her to try again, but also assured her that she could take a break, or try again at another competition if she wanted to. Abigail chose to go back out, but was quite distracted and nervous throughout the rest of the competition so didn’t do as well as she would usually do.
Her mother spent time with her after the competition talking about what had happened and focused on her bravery in returning to the competition and doing her best (“I could see that you were really upset, but that you wanted to try again! You did your best today, and that is very strong and brave of you!”). They also explored what Abigail could try at the next competition if she made a mistake or forgot a routine again.
At home, her mother encouraged Abigail to share her achievement with her family, and instead of focusing on the challenge, focused on her strengths (learning, calming, bravery and trying her best).
Over time, Abigail and her mum talked about anxiety and how it affects our brain and our bodies, which helped this young girl to understand why she had felt the way she had (there is a great book called “Hello Warrior” by Karen Young which is a great reference if you would like to check it out!) .
At the next competition Abigail’s mother was quite nervous about how Abigail might do, but she made sure that she checked in with herself and managed her emotional experience so that Abigail didn’t attune to it.
Mum checked in with Abigail before her competition, who said that she wasn’t too nervous.
Driving to the competition Mum noticed that Abigail was becoming very chatty which was one of her nervous signs, so she checked in again and Abigail said that she was feeling more nervous – she noticed her heart beating more loudly and having butterflies in her tummy. They talked about what happens in our brain and body when we have a stress response and why her tummy and heart felt that way – and then used fidgeting, telling jokes, singing and chewing gum as ways to help her calm her body.
Abigail was a bit nervous heading into the competition but her mother let her know that this was normal, and shared a story about a time that she had felt a bit nervous but felt okay once she had done the activity she was a bit nervous about.
During the competition Abigail made a mistake and paused but kept going with the performance and later told her mum that she had felt a bit disappointed, but told herself that it was okay to make a mistake and that she would just try again.
Let’s look at what happened for Abigail to be able to develop a new way of thinking about her mistake, about stress and anxiety, and to demonstrate increased resilience!
Handling Performance Anxiety – After the First Competition
- Processing an experience – providing time to talk through a story and make sense of it . “Sometimes parents avoid talking about upsetting experiences, thinking that doing so will reinforce their children’s pain or make things worse. Actually, telling the story is often exactly what children need, both to make sense of the event and to move on to a place where they can feel better about what happened.” (Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, P. H. D. T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child. Random House).
- Acknowledge the emotional experience and sit with it – it is important to ask about a child’s emotional experience and not discount its level of distress or importance to them (for example – “I could see you had a really big emotion and that wasn’t easy for you” rather than “that’s okay you’ll be fine”). We can often want to reassure our children because we want them to be okay and let them know that we believe in them, but it is a great opportunity to help them identify the emotion and express it without judgement/problem solving initially.
- It’s important to revisit a stressful event after we have calmed down – there is always something to learn from a challenge and this helps with processing, but also with understanding and feeling empowered to learn/develop and face future challenges that might be similar.
- Strengths focused – by focusing on strength we help our child to recognise their skills and strengths and help them feel empowered within a stressful situation
- Psychoeducation – we can empower our children with knowledge in an age appropriate way! Using the flip your lid model of the brain, understanding fight/flight and freeze responses (support to understand why she felt and responded the way that she did).
- Identifying coping strategies for the next time she might feel this way (hard things might happen, but I know how to deal with that!). This is helpful for our child as problem solving in the moment can be difficult and they will feel empowered and capable entering into potentially stressful situations.
Tackling Performance Anxiety – Before the Second Competition
- Don’t make assumptions about how a child might feel – It was important not to assume that because Abigail had one challenging experience that she would feel nervous again – children are resilient and often surprise us with their strength and capacity to manage stress!
- Emotional check in with your child – it never hurts to ask how they are feeling before a potentially stressful event – this gives them permission to check in with themselves, but also to talk about it.
- Emotional check in for Abigail’s mum – we teach our children about the world, what is safe and not safe and what they should be worried about – it’s very likely that if we seem worried our children will assume that there is something to worry about!
- Learn to recognise signs that your child is starting to feel more anxious/stressed – as parents we can provide our children with support to recognise their triggers for more challenging emotional responses. If we do this regularly we help our children do this for themselves as they mature emotionally and psychologically.
- Have some strategies ready to suggest to your child if you notice their early stress signs. In this situation Abigail’s mother suggested a range of strategies including deep breathing, distraction, activity – singing, fidgeting. She also provided a review of understanding about anxiety in an age appropriate way.
- Focus on strengths, skills and effort as well as achievement – it is of course very important to recognise the achievement of winning or doing well, but is equally important to highlight other skills from a situation such as trying your best, focusing really well, supporting a friend through a hard time, facing your nerves, being supportive when other children do well.
- Reflection – it is great to reflect on situations, whether they were challenging or successful to help children process and learn from experiences (this might look like retelling the story together with a beginning, middle and end, highlighting strengths and things we have learnt).
- Role modeling for our children – as our children look to us to help them understand the world, we can provide them with real time and personally connected examples of how we as parents feel and act. This is a powerful tool in supporting emotional understanding, literacy and development of overall emotional regulation skills.
If this article resonated with you (and your experience within your parenting role) or you are interested in exploring this area further, it might be helpful to contact your GP or a therapist to explore these areas further. Of course if you live in the Brisbane area, I welcome you to make an appointment with me at M1 Psychology.
Author: Keira Gill, B Occ Thy.
Keira Gill is a Mental Health Occupational Therapist (MHOT) and an Animal Assisted Therapist working with Zumi, a five year old Japanese Spitz. Keira works with all ages (including children), and has a particular interest in trauma, anxiety and depression, mood disorders, ADHD, autism, and adjusting to life transitions.
To make an appointment with Keira Gill try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.