Supporting your teen with test anxiety
Is anxiety getting in the way of your teen’s ability to do their best on a test? Do they worry about failing their exams? Experience physical symptoms like a racing heart or upset stomach? Complain of feeling so anxious that they can’t remember the material?
Some anxiety can help us prepare and keep us mentally alert, actually improving our performance. But too much anxiety can affect our memory and cause us to make mistakes, reducing our performance.
What's going on?
Your teen’s test anxiety could be fueled by:
- Feeling (or being) unprepared
- Memories of doing poorly on tests in the past
- Unhelpful thoughts and worries
- Pressure from family (real or imagined)
- Fear of failure
- Learning challenges
How you can help
Listen.One of the hardest things about being anxious is the feelings of isolation and frustration that can come with it. Give your teen the space they need to share their feelings and their worries. Try not to jump in and fix the problem. Instead, let your teen do most of the talking.
Empathize.Expressing empathy by listening and taking your teen seriously is one of the best ways to help them feel seen and heard – and be more likely to listen to suggestions. But remember: Empathizing with their experience is not the same as agreeing with their behaviour or version of things. For example, you could say:
- “It looks like you have a lot on your mind.”
- “That’s a lot to juggle all at once.”
- “I understand why you have some worries about tomorrow. It’s important to you.”
- “Tests can be scary. I’m here to help if you need me.”
Don’t downplay their worries.One of the hardest things for adults to remember is how BIG everything feels in high school. It may be tempting to downplay their worries (“It’s not a big deal. It’s only worth 10% of your grade!”). But they may have reasons to feel anxious that you are not aware of, like comparing themselves with peers, disappointing others, or fearing judgment or embarrassment.
Reassure but be realistic.Remind your teen that a test is just a chance to show what they know (not what they don’t know). It is a tool for the teacher to assess students’ understanding of the topic. And teachers want students to do well! A test cannot measure all of your teen’s many strengths and talents, and it’s not a good measure of how or what they will do in the future. After all, many people are very successful in their work without having had high grades in high school.
Learn about test anxiety.There are many good resources on test anxiety and how to deal with it, including:
- Strategies for Dialing Down Test Anxiety (EASE 8–12 student resource PDF)
- Test Anxiety (workbook from HeretoHelp, also available as a downloadable PDF)
- Test Anxiety: Crash Course Study Skills #8 (video)
Find coping strategies.Everyone has different things that help them calm down and focus, so it might take a few tries to find the strategy that works best for your teen. Spend some time with your teen practising different calming exercises before test day, so if they are anxious on test day, they will know how to calm themselves. For some calming exercises to try, see the EASE at Home 8–12 resource Helping Your Teen Calm Their Mind and Body.
Just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s true – even if it feels true.