How to Help a Child With Test Anxiety

Four strategies help your child manage anxiety.

Posted Sep 27, 2020

Heightened anxiety is typical during this time. Kids have a lot to worry about: tech issues, falling behind in a virtual classroom, missing a teacher who can answer a question in the moment, and distance from classmates who, previously, may have provided support.

Kids are additionally vulnerable because they lack experience in the world. Finding a place in a competitive and chaotic world can be both overwhelming and scary. Often a child may feel as if his or her self-worth pivots on the next achievement. Failing becomes more terrifying then the possibility of success.

Yet, there is help. Four techniques prepare a parent to assist a child with the anxiety that is overarching today.    

First, empathize with a child’s anxiety. For example, “You are worried about your math test. It’s a big worry. I get it.” The empathy helps a child feel understood, close to the parent who understands, and less alone in his or her plight. When a child feels understood, typically, he or she feels less anxious because a parent helps shoulder the worry.

If a child’s worries are understood, the child may feel safer letting a parent “in.” Knowing how a child feels allows a parent to help early, so small worries and anxieties do not multiply and generalize. A child who can identify a specific worry is usually emotionally astute. Helping this child in place of shutting him or her down is critical. Avoiding responses which negate, dismiss, and shame a child for a worry is important. For example,

“Don’t think like that.”

“Don’t be so negative.”

“Don’t worry.”

These are responses which may cause a child to experience shame for having a worry. This, itself, may prompt a child to hide emotions which, in turn, may increase loneliness and anxiety.     

It is important to note that a parent who empathizes with how a child feels does not need to relinquish rules and expectations. Striving to understand yet refusing to enable may allow a parent to rear a secure child with solid character. Empathizing with feelings, but correcting behaviors is important. “You are mad. I would be too, but you cannot scream at your sister. Please go apologize.”

Following the empathy, it is important to reassure, encourage and assist with problem solving. For example, say a child discloses anxiety about a science test. A parent may say, “It is a big worry. You really care about your grade. I understand. What can I do to help?” Allowing a child to choose how a parent can support him or her empowers the child. For example, perhaps the child simply needs the parent to sit with him or her while she reviews the material.

Second, help a child practice deep breathing. Two big, belly breathes before and during a test help reset the child’s physiological system. Diaphragmatic breathing helps regulate a speedy heart rate and elevated blood pressure. The technique may also feel soothing to a child who is able to reconnect with his or her body. A strong mind and body connection allow a child to feel whole, grounded, centered and soothed.

Third, tensing and relaxing also assists a child re-establish a mind and body bond. Helping a child practice this technique before the exam is important. A child who is gearing up to take a test is usually sitting at a desk or table. Teach the child to focus on three zones: toes, legs, and hands. Instruct the child to squish up his or her toes and then relax them. Repeat. Invite the child to imagine an invisible balloon between his or her knees. Ask the child to try and pop the balloon by tensing up the lower body and squishing the knees together. Relax and repeat. Next, instruct the child to clench one fist at a time by his or her side. Relax and repeat. The child’s desk or table will camouflage the subtle movements.

Fourth, before the test, ask the child to remember a time when he or she felt extraordinarily proud. For example, say the child plays soccer. Ask him or her to recount a time on the soccer field when he or she felt immensely proud of a play. Encourage the child to remember how it feels when he or she recalls that moment. Next, ask the child to re-imagine the soccer memory when feeling anxious. The recollection of an experience when he or she felt relaxed, empowered, and successful, allows the child to feel the same positive emotions in the present. Usually, this cancels out the negativity and self-doubt that anxiety creates.

If a child can take a few seconds to deep breathe, tense and relax, and call up a powerful self-image, he or she may be able to dispel anxiety. Feeling in control of the anxiety may also help the child feel additionally empowered. Although anxiety is a part of life, knowing how to manage it makes existing a far more pleasant and joyful experience.