Test Stress

How to Help

Okay, are you now totally stressed? Don't be. There are lots of ways to help your kids conquer anxiety and do their best. Try these tips so your kids -- and you -- can rest easier about school.

Plan ahead. Have your child put all his exams on the family calendar so tests aren't last-minute crises.

Discuss pressure. Have frequent conversations, giving your kid details from your own life like, "I'm really worried about getting this proposal in by tomorrow. Do you get anxious like that about tests?" Or ask, "Are your friends nervous about the test?" Then you can follow up with, "What about you? How are you dealing with it?"

Discourage cramming. Kids shouldn't wait until the night before the test to try and pack their heads full of facts, says child psychiatrist Ron Zodkevitch, MD, a member of the Family Circle Health Advisory Board, because they'll probably forget most of the material anyway. Instead make sure your child spends some time each day with his course notes or text. It's a good idea to review carefully, but, says Dr. Zodkevitch, "your teen should be paying more attention to understanding the material than to memorizing."

Get assistance. Even before trouble hits, insist that your teen ask all his teachers, "How can I get extra help if I need it?" and then follow through (you may have to arrange before- or after-school transportation). "One of my daughters did well on math homework but struggled with tests," says Dr. Taylor. "The confidence she got from sessions with the teacher improved her test performance tremendously. She said she felt less nervous during exams."

Teach strategies. Remind your child always to read test directions carefully and to go over all of the questions before starting, so he'll know how long to spend on each. "Time pressure can add to anxiety," says Roberts. If your child has trouble finishing school exams, have him prepare by making up possible questions and answering them within a preset period. (Have him use a timer.)

Keep it real. Apprehensive teens often overestimate the consequences of not doing well on an exam. Remind your child (and yourself!) that all her goals, hopes, and dreams won't go down the tubes from one bad experience, says Dr. Zodkevitch. There's always another chance for success -- certain tests, like the SATs, can be taken multiple times, and most colleges will accept the best score. Some teachers will drop the lowest grade, or allow extra-credit work. Bottom line, you want your child to understand that her overall learning experience is more important than a single exam or grade.

Signs of Stress

If you notice your child has one or more of these symptoms, or she herself complains about any of them, she may be feeling overwhelmed and need extra support from you.

  • Physical problems like sweaty palms, stomachaches, and headaches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • More than usual irritability and moodiness
  • High rate of absenteeism, especially on test days

In worst-case situations, school performance may seriously drop and a child may feel sad, frustrated, and bad about himself. If this happens, or if your teen can't seem to get a grip on his test anxiety, take him to a cognitive-behavioral therapist, advises Amy L. Krain, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the New York University Child Study Center. "This type of therapy is very effective in helping a child cope with physiological feelings of stress as well as anxious thoughts," she says.

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