by Steve Adubato, PhD

Words can hurt, especially when you’re dealing with young children who haven’t formed a strong sense of who they are and where they fit in the world.

In my work coaching communication and leadership, I find over and over again that the childhood experiences of professionals often have a great impact on how these adults see the world later on in life. I’ll never forget the 50-year-old bank executive named Bob who was in line for a huge promotion if ONLY he could get over his fear of speaking in public.

After months of coaching Bob, he finally told me that his fear of public speaking was a result of a painful and deeply engrained experience when he was 12 years old of running for class president. Bob was full of energy and enthusiasm. He had worked hard to organize his campaign and tried to convince his fellow classmates one on one that he was the right guy for the job. There was only one catch. He had to give a speech in front of hundreds of students in the school auditorium. Get the picture? As usual, Bob was organized, focused and had all of his information on index cards. When the time came and the principal introduced him to speak, Bob tripped on his way to the podium and dropped the cards. Many of his classmates were laughing uncontrollably as he scrambled to pick up the index cards.

A deep sense of fear overcame him. When he reached the podium and looked at the cards, they were out of order. He tried several times to speak, but was so reliant upon his cards that finally he gave up and ran off the stage crying. Even though the principal, his teachers, parents, and a few classmates comforted him, many other students continued to make fun of Bob, mocking him, pretending to trip in the hallway and throwing index cards his way in the cafeteria.

Bob ultimately lost the election, but through this painful experience, he unfortunately lost a lot more than that—his self confidence when it came to public communication. Now, 38 years later, the memory was engrained, not just in his brain, but in every part of his being. The nicknames, the jokes, the stares were something that Bob, the bank executive, carried all these years.

Why do I share this story? Because every day thousands of children are put in challenging communication situations where they are expected to speak in front of fellow students and influential adults. That’s not easy by any means.

My advice to fellow parents reading this column is to get as actively engaged as possible in your child’s educational experience when it comes to public communication. Ask your child if he has any presentations coming up. Have him practice it in front of you. Give feedback. Give praise. Recognize what he’s doing well, but don’t hold back where you feel he can improve. Ask him if he has a “plan B” if he drops his index cards or someone in his presentation group doesn’t show up at the last minute. Ask him what he will do if the PowerPoint breaks down. How will he make his presentation?

The bottom line is that these early communication experiences can have a lasting effect. Sometimes it’s positive, enriching and inspiring. But it also has the potential to be discouraging and demoralizing. The stakes are higher than you think and every adult has an important role to play in helping his or her child improve these critical communication skills. Don’t believe it? Just think about Bob the banker. Today, he is making progress in this arena but still has a long way to go.