You’ve watched your kid practice for weeks for his school play. He knows the script by heart, has the stage directions memorized, and has perfected his end-of-show bow. But just when you think he couldn’t be more excited to bring the house down, he turns to you and, in a trembling voice, reveals that he’s too scared to perform.
The tears and cries of “I don’t want to go on!” may be unnerving, but they don’t mean that your child’s dreams of Broadway are crushed—even the most theatrically-inclined kids get stage fright. “It’s completely normal for children to get nervous before a show, and sometimes they don’t even realize it until right when they go on stage,” says Nancy Schaeffer, education director at Dallas Children’s Theater.
The root of the nerves varies from child to child, whether it’s being afraid to make a mistake or embarrassed to perform in front of peers. But theater teachers agree that stage fright can be overcome for the vast majority of children. You can help prevent bad cases of the butterflies with these three tips:
Practice will ease the panic. The more confident your child is about her lines and the flow of the show, the less likely she’ll be to lose her nerve before or during the production. Theater teachers and directors will make sure that their students have ample time to rehearse so that they feel prepared, but you can help your child to be performance-ready at home, too.
Suggest that she rehearses her script in front of friends or family to get even more comfortable with the character. You could even videotape her so she can see what a great job she’s doing and where she still needs work.
Older kids who are more serious about acting can shoo away stage fright by becoming as familiar as possible with the play. For example, before an audition for Death of a Salesman, recommend that your child reads the play or watches the movie. Then, when she reads the script at the audition, she’ll have a better understanding of the direction of the play, which can help ease anxieties.
But pre-show nerves might still pop up. No matter how prepared your child is, it’s likely that he’ll have a few jitters before the show starts. Schaeffer says the best way to squash stage fright at this point is to redirect his attention.
Where to begin? Have him play a game like follow the leader, say tongue twisters, or color in a picture. Then, right before he goes on, encourage him to take a deep breath and think about his first line or where on the stage she’s headed. Remind him that he can always look at the teacher (who will usually sit in front of the stage) for cues if he forgets a line or doesn’t know where to go. The walk on stage is usually the scariest part for kids with stage fright, but once they’re out in front of an audience they almost always forget about their worries.
And if my child’s still scared? While most kids will be stage-fright free once the show starts, there are a few who won’t be able to overcome their anxiety and will fall apart on stage. In these cases, it’s worth considering if theater is right for your child, says Janine Trevins, the artistic director at TADA Youth Theater in New York.
“As a parent, it can be hard to know when to push because you think your child will feel good about her performance when it’s over, and when to realize that it’s just not for her.” If your kid has a meltdown, you or the teacher can take her to the side of the stage, give her a reassuring hug and pep talk (“I saw you reciting your Goldilocks lines at the end of class yesterday and you sounded great!”), and ask if she wants to go back on. Some children might rebound quickly, but don’t put pressure on kids who would rather sit it out. You can’t push a child to get over severe stage fright, and it’s likely that seeing her friends having fun on stage will inspire her to fight her fright and give the stage another shot.