Helping Your Child Overcome Test Anxiety

Anxiety Tips

In last week’s blog, we looked at various ways parents can help their children work toward the 11-plus: from playing Scrabble to practising arithmetic in the car park! But what about other forms of preparation – helping your child build mental resilience, for instance, and battling test anxiety?

A 2017 article by The Guardian discussed the rising levels of stress that schoolchildren are facing when it comes to exams. 82% of the school leaders surveyed reported increasing mental health issues during exam time, with sleeplessness, panic attacks, and crying during tests some of the common symptoms.

No parent would wish for their child to feel like this. Spotting anxiety in children can be hard. If your son or daughter is exhibiting any of these signs, please don’t panic (and don’t beat yourself up). The important thing is that you’ve recognised there may be an issue brewing and are willing to try and work through the problem. There are a few simple things you can do to help your child cope with stress and anxiety – here are a few of our favourites:

Ways to Overcome Test Anxiety #1: Lead by Example

If you’re concerned that your child is displaying signs of anxiety, it can be tempting to try and remove stress from the equation entirely – to create a complete atmosphere of calm, and pretend that nothing stressful ever happens to any member of the family. In fact, it can be more helpful to do the opposite: to talk openly about things that make you stressed, describe how you cope with these situations, and then end on a positive note, so it doesn’t feel like such a big deal. For example, you might say something like: ‘I have to go to a new office this week, and I’ve never been there before, and the journey is very complicated – I have to change trains three times! I’m quite worried about it, but I know if I leave myself plenty of time, and read up on the route beforehand, it will all be fine. Actually, it’s a fun challenge to have to travel to a new place!’

By describing stressful situations, you help to normalise the issue, and also establish the idea that it’s not only okay to feel like this, but also there are always ways to ‘solve’ the problem.

Ways to Overcome Test Anxiety #2: Verbalise and Visualise

During your regular discussions on stress, how it affects you, and how you cope with it, it will also be helpful to ask your children to visualise or describe ‘worry’ or ‘nerves’ – what does fear feel like to them? How might it look, if they were to draw a picture of it? And where do they feel these emotions: do they get twitchy feet; does their tummy get butterflies; do they feel hot or cold?

Helping children to identify what anxiety feels like – in all different ways, from the physical to the visual – will make it easier for them to recognise signs of stress in themselves; moreover, by breaking down the feelings, they seem less overwhelming, allowing you to begin to introduce coping mechanisms.

Ways to Overcome Test Anxiety #3: Grow Confidence

A simple idea, but an effective one: many children feel anxious or stressed around exams because they lack confidence in their own abilities, and are therefore placing a great deal of importance on the outcome of the exam because it becomes a symbol of self worth. Whilst it is important to acknowledge the value of the work they have put into exam preparation, and the need to take things seriously, make sure to take time to talk about all the other things they excel at. Talk about how kind they are; how creative; how fast they are at running; how good they are at catching and throwing, etc. By reminding them that their worth lies beyond an exam score, you’re instilling them with the confidence they need to do well when the time comes to sit that same test.

By the same token, make sure to build time into your revision schedule for them to do those things that they both love and do well at: whether that’s playing a game of football with friends, painting a picture, or reading their favourite book, if you give your child time to relax, you can also boost their self-esteem by letting them know how good they are at their chosen hobbies.

Ways to Overcome Test Anxiety #4: Teach Your Child to Relax

There are many different ways to relax, so it’s worth trying a few of these with your son or daughter and seeing which one they take to.

  • Breathing exercises. Place your hands on your tummy and close your eyes. Breathe in through the nose for a count of five. Hold for two. Exhale slowly for five counts. Repeat several times. Try adding some visualisation in, too – picture a calming colour when breathing out, or think of a happy, relaxing place (like a favourite holiday location).
  • Squeeze the tension away. When anxiety hits, some children tense up. Providing a squeezable ball (or even a piece of Blu Tack!) that can be squished between their fingers can be very helpful. Not only does this release tension, but it also distracts the child from whatever it is that is making them feel worried.
  • Shake it all about. Some children (and adults!) experience tension in a different way when suffering from stress: like a coiled spring, nervous energy builds and builds, but it is focused inwards – and it needs to be let out! Exercise is a great way to combat this feeling: whether that’s a jog, a game of Frisbee, or a manic dance around the house, moving around will help diffuse tension whilst releasing endorphins for an instant ‘pick-me-up’.
  • Find a happy song. Listen to lots of music with your child and find some tracks that make them feel happy or calm – it’s their choice! Whatever proves to be the greatest distraction, locate a few suitable songs and create a playlist that they can listen to whenever they feel worried or anxious.

And finally…

It might sound obvious, but food and sleep are also two major contributors to a child’s emotional and mental wellbeing. During the build-up to exams, make sure your son or daughter is in a good sleeping routine, so that they can rest for at least eight hours each night; and ensure that you’re feeding them nourishing foods, too. Avoid fizzy drinks and sweets, as caffeine and sugar can exacerbate signs of irritability or hyperactivity, but do throw a few treats in for good measure every now and then – they deserve it!

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