While many kids take their various deadlines, quizzes and tests in stride, for others the experience of facing any of these can be like a painful, paralyzing nightmare, leading to an inevitable failure. For kids with test anxiety, even a minor challenge can induce such high levels of stress that they virtually shut down, losing their ability to think or even recall what they know.
In our work we have found that test anxiety is an often overlooked or misidentified factor in a student’s sometimes surprising under-performance on tests, or at meeting deadlines. Yet the diagnosis these kids all too often receive is that they aren’t paying enough attention in class, or that they aren’t studying or working hard enough.
Such labeling only raises their anxiety levels, making them feel even more isolated, affecting their self-esteem, their sense of well-being, as well as their relationships. Which is why many children go to school each day feeling as if its only a matter of time before they are discovered to be incapable or incompetent.
So how can a parent help?
First, it is important to recognize signs of test anxiety, which can include a deep need to be perfect, or an intractable lethargy about doing their school work, or a undermining belief he or she is not good enough — all leading to a withdrawal from either doing their class work or handing in it, especially as deadlines and tests approach. You may also notice your kid having difficulty concentrating, paying attention, or an increasing forgetfulness. Restlessness, frequent headaches or trouble sleeping may also be signs of a rising tide of fear.
Second, mom and dad’s efforts to be patient, consistent, realistic and flexible can greatly ease a child’s tension. By making a child’s effort more important than their results-of-the-moment, parents can greatly help to reduce their child’s anxieties. In praising what’s good about them, and not being overly critical of disappointing results, a mom and dad can also teach their child how pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and make a new start.
Conversely, a parent must also become aware of how they may be contributing to their child’s concerns about doing well. While most moms and dads want the absolute best for their kid, grownup worries about which school they will be able to get into, what college they will attend, or what degree they will graduate with, may all be adding to a child’s apprehensions, making every test, every deadline, feel like another critical turning point in their lives, when in fact many are simply not. So it is incumbent that we ask ourselves as parents: are our worries about their future unintentionally triggering and worsening theirs?
As with all matters parenting, rearing children continually invites us to reexamine ourselves to see if we may be passing along our own anxieties and fears, even as we hope we are acting to quell theirs. A calm, step by step approach, taking life a day at a time, may well be the key to deescalating their fears and yours, helping to restore a sense of positive possibilities.
On a practical level, should you suspect your child may be experiencing overwhelming anxiety around their school work, it is useful to check with their teacher and deans. Should your child be demonstrating a reasonable grasp of their classes in all ways except on tests or in meeting deadlines, test anxiety may well be the hidden reason.
For much more on this and all things parenting, please see our new Parenting Guides: www.thedancingparent.com/parentguides.