How To Handle A 7-Year Old Boy With Anxiety Attacks What Causes Debilitating Fear In Public Speaking?

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What Causes Debilitating Fear In Public Speaking?

Through my many years of teaching voice and presentation skills, I have found that those who experience a truly debilitating fear of public speaking had a bad experience sometime during elementary or even high school when they had to stand up and speak. And while that one event may not affect every child in the same way, for some the damage can be traumatic.

Please understand that I am not talking about the usual nervousness that most of us experience during a presentation or speech. That nervousness is good. It’s useful: that extra adrenaline rush can help make your labor exciting. In my work I do not advocate the elimination of nervousness; instead, I teach people how to control it, allowing it to work for them, not against them.

Here, however, I am talking about a fear of public speaking that is extreme and is the result of an embarrassing or humiliating experience in childhood that the individual cannot forget. By the way, those who tell me they don’t remember such an event have often repressed the memory, hoping never to think about it again because it’s too painful.

Public speaking is undoubtedly difficult. It is more difficult to have children in the elementary years to stand up and talk to a group of their peers. All it takes is one mispronunciation of a word, one lapse in memory, one embarrassing slip, one humiliating remark from another student or teacher, and that child will never want to stop and speak again. Agonizing is being laughed at by your classmates.

Obviously, I’m not a proponent of public speaking in elementary school. I think that’s a mistake and I don’t believe we should be putting our children in that scenario at that tender age. In today’s schools where children are worse and less disciplined than they have ever been, we are only adding fuel to the fire. Certainly not every child will have a bad experience; but is it worth it for those children who will suffer? [I am not talking about class plays which I think are a positive experience because they involve group participation. With the play, the child is not being singled out and has the entire class as support.]

One of my clients, a psychiatrist in Toronto who specializes in working with severely abused adults, has been asked to speak at various symposia and conventions across Canada and the United States. She came to me because of her inability to get on that stage. In talking to her, I discovered that she and her cousin performed a song in front of a group of people at the age of 7. When it was all over, her father told her she was horrible. Granted, Frances had lived through years of abuse at the hands of her father, but she was an incredibly resilient woman and was convinced that it was this event that made her avoid the public eye.

While working with Francis, I was able to build her confidence level because she had a truly magnificent voice. I tested her and I knew she could sing; therefore I was able to convince her that at 7 she probably sang well and that her father was a stupid and wrong man to treat her the way he did. (Actually, he died while I was working with her, and she went back to Ireland to ‘nail his coffin!’)

While you might think Francis’ example is extreme, it really isn’t. If you knew all the horror stories I’ve heard over the years, you’d understand. In today’s world where growing up is more difficult than ever, do we really need to subject our children to an experience that could cause irreparable damage to their self-esteem? Let’s take that one pressure off them and use other positive means to boost their confidence and self-image.

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