How to teach your child to combat nerves

Your child probably complains of having butterflies in his or her tummy before public speaking. 

It’s a universal phenomenon and totally normal!

Nerves show up in many shapes and forms, often as knots in the stomach, sweaty palms, dry mouth, tightness in the throat, and sometimes excessive anxiety, and can even make the most confident, capable, well-prepared performer feel too scared to perform.

So how can you teach your child to control their nerves, rather than have their nerves control them? Our teachers Isabel Dickson and Amy Hume share their best teaching tips.

It might help you and your child to know that nerves are very common, and many high-profile speakers including actor Nicole Kidman and entrepreneur Richard Branson admit to getting nervous before public speaking. Branson says he ‘loathes’ making speeches!

The good news is, it is possible to overcome the unforgiving nature of nerves and anxiety. Speech and Drama Teachers and Voice Coaches constantly work with nervous speakers, and as a result we have some great tricks for managing or overcoming nerves.

At Viva Voice, we have a system to teach kids to combat nerves, by:

  • Working out why nerves appear
  • Naming the feeling of nervousness – as adults, we call it fear or anxiety; but we’ve learnt that kids respond to naming the feeling Mr. or Ms. Nerves
  • Practising and refining public speaking skills so that the child trusts themselves and their preparation, no matter how Mr. or Ms. Nerves behaves
  • Teaching exercises that help kids feel grounded and centred before they perform in front of a crowd

Mr. and Ms. Nerves visit all of us in different ways, at different times, for different reasons.

That’s why it’s vital to hone public speaking skills at a young age to build confidence and the ability to express yourself freely.

If you help your child to get comfortable with public speaking at a young age, they’ll be set up for presenting at school, giving leadership speeches, debating, storytelling, and job interviews!

The hard work doesn’t just happen in the studio, there are things you can do at home to teach your children to combat nerves.

1. Use specific language with your child to identify nerves

Nerves play out differently for everyone, so it’s useful to find out how nerves make your child feel.

For some people, nerves make them really talkative and hyperactive.

For others, nerves make them freeze, lose their train of thought, and have nothing to say.

Help your child to recognise the feeling of nerves. It might be butterflies in their tummy, a jittery feeling, over-excitement or being withdrawn. Explain to them that the feeling is common and normal.

2. Empathise with your child’s struggle

Express your empathy and understanding, and follow with a question such as: “Do you want some help to figure out what to do about the nerves?”

This implies that your child will be going ahead with the speech with some coping strategies, and not submitting to their lack of confidence.

Avoid statements like “Don’t worry about it” or “You’ll be fine” as this sends a message to your child that it’s wrong to feel the way they do.

All of the teachers at Viva Voice talk to our students about the fact that even the best speakers and performers still feel nervous! They love hearing about our own experiences with nerves, how we manage nerves, and why we still go up on stage even though we feel nervous. We explain to them that even though we feel nervous, we’ve done it enough times now to know that nerves are normal and everything will be alright!

3. Encourage your child’s progress

It’s important to accept that nerves aren’t always going to fade away. They sometimes show up when we least expect it!

It might be because a certain person is in the audience, or because a room looks different to what we expect, or just because of the day of the week.

Children shouldn’t expect nerves to completely disappear. Encourage them to have a go at public speaking even if they feel nervous, and then recognise their achievement afterwards.

You can say “You did so well even though you felt nervous!”, or “You didn’t think you could do it, but you did!”

This will help them recognise that they managed their nerves and gives encouragement towards next time.

4. Try writing to Mr. or Ms. Nerves

An exercise that works for some children involves penning a letter to Mr. or Ms. Nerves. One of our students wrote an empowering note:

“Dear Ms. Nerves,

I know you’re telling me that I can’t get up on stage and everyone will laugh at me, but you are wrong. I am strong and I can do it!”

This student proceeded to perform in her section at the eisteddfod. Though she still experienced some stage fright, she reminded herself that she was strong and proved to herself that she could do it. Ms. Nerves wasn’t going to get the better of her!

No matter your age, you could write a letter to Mr. or Ms. Nerves and finish on an empowering note.

5. Release that nervous energy

We talk to our students about pasta.

Not eating it! That doesn’t eliminate stage fright, though it definitely brings joy for other obvious reasons.

Children can imagine their limbs are like pasta – stiff and unyielding before it loosens and floats in boiling water.

Like pasta, kids can tighten and tense their limbs for a few seconds, then relax and wiggle them like floppy noodles.

6. Stand like a superhero

Viva Voice students learn to Stand like a Superhero – tall and in an open, high-power position called a ‘power pose’ before gracing the stage.

7. Keep your child in regular classes to reinforce their skill development

Managing or overcoming a fear of public speaking is best learnt in ongoing group classes, with tools and strategies introduced and reinforced from week to week.

We see a lot of students develop wonderful skill in this area, and then leave classes, only to reappear a year or so later having taken some steps backwards.

It’s never too late to start learning fundamental speaking skills, but it takes a lot of practise to create strong, foundational, reliable speaking habits. The school playground is a very influential place and children need constant reinforcement to establish consistently strong public speaking skills.

Remember, feeling nervous when speaking in public is a universal phenomenon that has been around since the beginning of time!

However, it’s possible to help your child manage nerves and feel confident when speaking in public.

You can help and support your child in becoming a clear, confident speaker by using these strategies. Let us know how you’re going at home – we love working together with parents to reach the best outcomes for our students.

Next time your child gives a speech or performs, film it and tag Viva Voice on Facebook or Instagram so we can cheer at their progress!