Anxiety can grab hold of kids at any point during their young lives, and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint its origins—your child might be a budding perfectionist, or have developed some concerns over self-esteem, or is nervous about succeeding later in life. Recognizing some specific types of anxiety, though, can lead parents to the best tools to help their kids to cope.
Suffering from test anxiety is so common among kids that it’s practically a rite of passage, whether they’re struggling in school or A-plus students. Maybe you have a child who does quite well in particular subjects, and even has an apparent mastery of the topic, but when it comes to test-taking, she freezes. Sound familiar? Stress can get the best of kids, but there are many ways to relieve test anxiety—good preparation being the primary one, and most teachers will work with your child to help them be more successful.
Tests that make a difference on college applications, such as the ACTs, SATs, and other exams, can be particularly troublesome. There are tutors available who specialize in these tests (check with your child’s school as a possible resource) and there are full-length practice tests to help them get ready for the big day. Preparation is a big part of relieving the stress and anxiety that can come with testing. You can even schedule your students to take the test twice, knowing they can eliminate the worse of two scores.
Take a Deep Breath
The stress is real: Some students may actually feel physical symptoms of anxiety during the test itself. It’s important to pay attention to and acknowledge what your child says about their uneasiness or to recognize when they may be keeping those concerns from you. Ask them questions about what their specific fears are—talking about it can help steer them away from a cascade of worries, and it may help them see that failure will not lead to permanent disaster. You can help by keeping your child healthy—encouraging sleep, a reduction in screen time, regular physical activity and use of relaxation activities such as deep breathing or yoga.
Be a Study Buddy
On testing for younger children, who might worry over the possibility of minor tests or pop quizzes, going back to that “preparation is key” mantra makes all the difference. Use study time as parent-child time, helping them study in a way that works best for them, like flashcards, oral quizzes or a special homework station. If your students have regular homework time or designated hours of study each evening, they can feel confident they’ve already gone over the potential exam material, even if they don’t feel quite ready when their teacher says, “Close your books.”
With kids involved in many after-school and community sports programs and other activities, sooner or later they may experience some worry over a game, performance or competition. As the sporting events move into more competitive levels, this anxiety can mount. If not treated, this type of anxiety can spill over into college or work environments.
Find the Source of Concern
As with testing, your child may not voice his or her concerns right away. You might instead hear them talk about quitting the sport or activity they previously enjoyed. Some might even feign injury or experience real physical symptoms associated with performance anxiety. Articulating the concern, whether it’s letting down team members or not having enough confidence in skills and abilities, can help pinpoint where their efforts can be focused. Positive self-talk and visualization can replace negative thinking and fatalism.
Stress What’s Really Important
Make sure your kids know it’s OK to fail or perform poorly—what’s important really is giving it their best effort, and coming back with a plan to change the performance next time, whether it’s more preparation, practice or learning a new technique. Let your child know that they are perfect exactly the way they were created, and that everyone makes mistakes.
Children may experience some level of anxiety in social situations at the onset of new situations, such as entering school for the first time, changing grades, or taking a class that pushes them out of their comfort zone. They may feel anxiety about meeting new friends, or the possibility that they won’t. These are all common concerns, and you can help your child cope with the effects of social anxiety.
Visualize a New Outcome
Teaching relaxation techniques, just as with test anxiety, can make a big difference. Deep breathing exercises coupled with soothing mental imagery can help bring a child back from the depths of his concerns. Helping to reframe negative thinking (“I don’t have any friends”) with more positive ideas (“I have an opportunity to make friends”) will become an important tool your child can use throughout life. If your family has a particular faith, be sure to use prayer if it is helpful and calming to your child.
Seek Additional Help When Needed
Some children develop a diagnosable Social Anxiety Disorder, marked by a significant amount of stress or fear surrounding interactions with others. If your child often expresses a strong desire to avoid situations where they will interact with others, ask your child about what’s happening. Sometimes this stress can be induced by troubling situations, such as bullies at school or an inciting incident like an embarrassing day in the classroom. If the answers are less clear, talk to your child’s school counselor, a pastor in your church, or turn to another mental health professional about the best way you can help.
Anxiety issues in kids are highly common, and rest assured, there are lots of tools for parents to help their kids overcome the challenges caused by this stress. And knowing you’re there to support them and cheer them on is one of the most valuable anxiety-fighting tools you can give them.