How to Help With Homework, Test, and Life Stress

Helping a child regulate anxiety and negative emotion

Posted Aug 24, 2019

Going back to school is exciting, but terrifying. The rubber hits the road when homework and exams start. After a busy day, the last thing a child and parent want is a power struggle. Tears, fits, frustration, and emotional paralysis often ensue when a child is overwhelmed, anxious, or frustrated. If a parent intervenes incorrectly, the situation may escalate. Three ways to help a child may save a parent’s sanity and provide the child an opportunity to master his or her frustration. Additional strategies to support the child with test anxiety reinforce the child’s overall ability to calm down in stressful situations.

First, help identify what it is the child is feeling. For example, is he or she overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work? Is there frustration because he or she doesn’t “get it.” Is there anxiety about doing the homework incorrectly and getting in trouble? Perhaps the child is fearful he or she will feel “dumb” when confronted with material he or she does not get when classmates seem to easily understand.

After narrowing down the feeling, honor it by saying something like, “I get it. You have a lot of work. It’s overwhelming. You are not sure where to start.”

“You are frustrated. I can tell. You are not sure how to do this work and everyone else “gets it.” That is frustrating and I bet you feel pretty alone.”

“You are scared your answers will be wrong and you’ll get trouble. I get it. I used to mess up my vocabulary assignment which upset my teacher. I was worried she thought I was a “bad” kid. It’s a worry for you too. I understand.”

“It feels bad to not grasp what others easily understand in the class-room. Then, to come home and have to deal with it again is a lot to handle. I get it, and I want to help.”

Once a parent helps the child identify the negative feeling and then empathizes with the feeling, the child feels understood, connected to the parent, and far less alone in his or her plight. This immediately helps the child calm down.

Second, reassure, encourage, and partner with the child. Sit with the kiddo for a few minutes until he or she gets started. Occasionally, an empathic presence in close proximity can help transform a child’s negative energy into a more positive energy.

Third, break up the homework into small manageable parts. Ask the child what the easiest subject is and to take that out.  Put the rest of the work out of sight and say, “Let’s just start with math.” After the child completes one subject, he or she may feel less overwhelmed and ready to start another subject.

If the child has a break down in the middle of the homework, invite the child to take a break and participate in an activity that may ground him or her. For example, “Let’s go for a quick run around the block.” Getting outside helps reduce anxiety. Snuggling or giving a cat or dog cuddles also diminishes anxiety. Deep breathing and relaxation exercises like tensing and relaxing help too. After hitting the “reset” button, the child may feel more positive which is better for focus, critical thinking, and creativity.

Helping a child regulate negative feeling states such as frustration, anxiety, paralysis, feeling overwhelmed, and fear, affords him or her calming experiences that can be repeated and integrated independent of a parent. A child who can calm himself or herself down will have improved success and less anxiety moving forward. The child is confident in the ability to manage his or her stress.

Tests can also be a stressful experience for a child. The pressure to achieve is significant. In addition, many children often impose pressure on themselves to excel. A perfectionist child is often anxious, stressed, and neurotic about exams and assignments. Assisting a child implement several techniques may help.

Utilizing the following strategies the morning of the test may be a good idea. Playing fun and inspirational music for the child as he or she gets ready for the day may help. Laughing at a funny video at the breakfast table helps dissipate anxiety. Car singing on the way to the school also helps reduce stress.

As the child sits and waits for the test to be distributed, anxiety may mount. Instruct the child to take four deep breathes while waiting to begin the test. It may be helpful to practice deep breathing with a child every night in order to ensure the breath is getting to the child’s diaphragm. Chest breathing or shallow breathing increases panic, so practicing the correct technique is important.

After four deep breathes, the child should begin tensing and relaxing. This can be done while he or she sits at a desk. The movements look natural and are camouflaged by a table or desk, so they won’t attract unwanted attention.  Have the child start with his or her toes. Scrunch the toes tight, then relax them. Repeat. Flex the ankles, then relax. Repeat. Pretend there is a balloon between the knees and try to pop it by squishing the knees together and tensing the entire lower body. Relax. Repeat. Cross the arms across the chest and grab above the elbow, almost like you are giving yourself a hug, and tense, relax, and repeat. Four deep breathes should follow the tensing and relaxing.

If anxiety sets in during the test, encourage the child to put down the pencil and take four deep breathes. Spending a few moments tensing and relaxing may be worth the time. Performing in a relaxed state will improve focus and performance.    

Anxiety and stress are a huge part of life. Helping a child learn how to manage these states early may help the child function more happily and confidently. The child may also engage in more challenges because he is sure of his ability to reduce his own anxiety in novel situations. A calm and focused child usually performs successfully.