How Do I Help My Child Overcome Piano Performance Anxiety?
Months ago, your child enthusiastically agreed to participate in a piano concert. Suddenly, the big day arrives.
They have been practicing for weeks and know their pieces like they know their alphabet.
Grandparents are en route and your child’s outfit is laying on the bed, ready for them.
Seemingly out of nowhere, they no longer wish to play in the concert. There is outright refusal—perhaps nausea, tears and even a tantrum.
Does this scenario sound familiar?
It won’t for everyone. Some children are comfortable performing in front of people. Everyone is different, and it’s somewhat influenced by personality type and temperament. Studies reveal that those high in levels of perfectionism suffer greater performance anxiety. It may also come from a learned behaviour; for example, a prior bad experience. However, if it’s something that you believe you would like to help your child manage, the question becomes: How do I help overcome this anxiety?
Firstly, let’s begin with what not to do.
Avoid using phrases such as “Don’t worry” or “You’ll be fine”. You may have the best intentions here but the words convey a lack of empathy and understanding; they imply a judgement that it’s wrong for your child to feel the way they do.
What to do instead.
As much as possible, respond with empathy. For example, “I understand that you’re feeling a bit scared/a little nervous/have some butterflies in your stomach [tailor this to the age of the child]”. If the child is old enough, have a conversation about anxiety. Explain that it is the fight-or-flight response and that it’s perfectly normal to feel that way. Have a discussion about how your child feels and how these feelings are transient and manageable with strategies.
Help your child learn their best ways of managing their anxiety early. This might include strategies like deep breathing in through the nose and exhaling out through the mouth, perhaps even counting at the same time. Some children might even find comfort speaking to their stomach and telling themselves aloud that they can calm their nerves down.
If possible, don’t allow avoidance. You want to offer your child the opportunity to realise that anxious feelings are not fatal—that these feelings can be acknowledged and overcome. Reinforcing avoidance strategies may generalise to other anxiety-provoking situations. On the other hand, be careful not to push your child too much, or the fear may be exacerbated. As the parent, you are the best judge when finding that healthy balance between acknowledging anxiety and instilling fear.
Shift the focus onto the pleasure the playing will provide the audience, rather than what could possibly go wrong with the performance. Try going for a little walk before the performance—a way of releasing some of that nervous energy. Also, if possible, host some mini concerts before the event, where your child can perform in front of family members. This is often a comfortable steppingstone.
A performance does provide an opportunity to build resilience. It’s nearly impossible to get through life without facing some form of performance anxiety—whether it’s a job interview, exam, speech, etc. The more times your child successfully takes themselves a little out of their comfort zone, the more empowered and resilient they will become. It may take some time and understanding, but be sure to focus on the journey and not the outcome. Don’t forget to reward your child for facing their fears and make the event a happy memory; for example, you could go somewhere special together or do something fun afterward.
Anxiety isn’t one of the more enjoyable feelings. It comes from the autonomic nervous system’s response to a perceived threat. When confronted with this threat, our bodies “prepare for battle”. However, we have an instinctual tendency to fear situations which pose no real threat to our wellbeing. Learning to overcome anxious feelings is highly beneficial, as it bestows a sense of empowerment. If managed correctly with empathy, patience and understanding you can help your young performer build a resilience which will aid them through many of life’s challenges.