How to help your teen handle Exam Anxiety

Most students feel anxious while taking an exam, but some are more likely to suffer from exam anxiety than others. Read on to know how can you help your teen calm those exam nerves.

By Dr Meghna Singhal  • 15 min read

How to help your teen handle Exam Anxiety

Four months before her Grade 12 pre-board exams Shruti sought help from her parents. She had been feeling anxious for a while, but in the last two weeks she had a panic attack while taking her semester exams. Her main worry was that she may get a panic attack during her pre-boards. Her worry was connected to the fear that she had not covered her syllabus portions and was far behind as compared to her peers.

Vikram put in an all-nighter, studying for his Grade 10 Science semester exam till 4:30am. His mother woke him up at 7am to get ready and go to school to write his exam. When he sat in his usual classroom to take his exam, he felt his mind go blank. The minute he saw the question paper, he froze…why couldn’t he remember anything he had studied?

Both these instances reflect exam or test anxiety. The student may feel stressed, helpless, unable to manage the exam situation, or may completely blank out.

What is Exam Anxiety?

Exam Anxiety (also called performance anxiety) is a feeling of fear, nervousness, uneasiness, or panic before or during an exam or any testing situation. It interferes with learning, reduces working memory (or the ability to think spontaneously and make decisions), increases mistakes, and lowers test performance. While your teen may have prepared well for the exam and may have the skills and knowledge to do well, her excessive anxiety may impair her performance in the exam.

But everyone gets nervous before an exam!
While most individuals get nervous before an exam, a few can experience anxiety so debilitating, they find it difficult to concentrate, and struggle to recall the things they have studied. A little nervousness before an exam has actually been found to be productive (famously called the Yerkes-Dodson law), making you mentally alert and enhancing your performance. But when that anxiety becomes excessive, it can interfere with test performance. You may know that you know your material but you could still be unable to recall it because of anxiety, which may make you even more stressed. This may further make it harder for you to focus your attention on the test, resulting in silly mistakes, missing reading the questions thoroughly, or completely blanking out.

Extreme exam anxiety can express itself in the following ways: cognitive (thoughts), behavioural (actions), physiological (bodily signs), and emotional (feelings). See box below

How to help your teen handle Exam Anxiety

Why do some students experience exam anxiety, while others don’t?
One of the biggest sources of exam anxiety is parental pressure. It is usually expressed in the thought “My parents will be extremely mad at me if I get low marks.” Isn’t it unfortunate that what is meant to be an assessment of a student’s knowledge ends up being a mad scramble for marks and parental approval?
But there are others sources of exam anxiety. Some of them include: lack of preparation, fear of failure, negative thinking, competition, and negative past experiences, such as a previous testing situation in which the teen perhaps froze.

How can you help your teen deal with exam anxiety?

Let us look at the ways in which exam anxiety expresses itself and examine how you can help your teen with each of those aspects:

1) THOUGHTS: Turn negative into realistic thinking
This entails looking at the complete picture (not only the negative aspects of a situation) in a balanced manner. This entails the following steps:

Step 1: Pay attention to your self-talk
We are often unaware of our self-talk (the things we say to ourselves without speaking them out loud) but it can have a huge impact on what we feel. This self-talk is important to detect. When your teen finds himself getting anxious, he could start paying attention to the thoughts running in his mind. Getting anxious (signalled by slight or obvious bodily changes, such as racing heart, butterflies in stomach, nausea, or sweaty palms) is inadvertently accompanied by anxiety-provoking thoughts. A good way to identify these anxiety-provoking thoughts is to ask oneself- What am I thinking about right now? What is making me feel nervous right now? What bad thing do I think will happen? A good starting point is encouraging your teen to make a list of all the thoughts running in his mind that are making him anxious.

How to help your teen handle Exam Anxiety

Step 2: Challenge your anxious thoughts
It is extremely important that you make your teen understand that thinking something doesn’t make it happen! For example, just because your teen thinks she will fare poorly doesn’t mean she will. But how can you explain that to your teen?

One good way of doing so is learning to challenge our anxious thoughts. This can be done in many ways:

  • Providing oneself with evidence or proof against our anxious thought. What is the evidence that this thought (“I will fail my Math exam”) is true?
  • What would I tell a friend if she had the same thought?
  • Am I 100% sure that ________________(my anxious thought) will happen?
  • How many times has ________________happened before?
  • What is the worst that will happen if ________________comes true?
  • If _______________does happen, what can I do to cope with it/handle it?

It might also help your teen understand that some types of anxious thoughts are so common, they have been called ‘Thinking Traps’. Thinking traps are overly negative (and unrealistic ways of seeing oneself, others, or one’s world) and serve to maintain one’s anxiety. The table below illustrates some common exam-anxiety related thinking traps and how your teen could challenge his anxious thoughts using some questions above. Download and print the chart below and give it to your teen: 

How to help your teen handle Exam Anxiety

2) EMOTIONS: Empathise with feelings
The most common parental response to their teen’s exam anxiety is offering reassurance: “don’t worry, you will do fine”. Or giving solutions: “eat well and you will not feel weak.” But this may not be helpful to the teen who is overwhelmed with anxiety. You can, instead, do the following:

  • Empathise: Expressing empathy is one of the best ways in which you could respond to your teen, because it makes them feel heard. You don’t even have to wait for your child to express her anxiety. Saying, “You seem worried”, or “I’m seeing that you’re having difficulty studying” or “It’s hard for you when….” can help open conversations about your child’s feelings. Just resist the urge to jump in with a solution. Rather, empathise and await- let your child do most of the talking and don’t offer help unless asked.
  • List out worries: If your child reports feeling worried, ask him to list down all the reasons behind his worry. When he does so, go over each reason (e.g., “I feel I will forget what I have learnt in the exam”) and brainstorm how he can tackle each (e.g., “when he starts to notice feeling anxious during the exam, can he start doing deep breathing? Or focusing on a distant sound to distract him from his anxiety?).
  • Don’t brush aside feelings: “It’s no big deal” is the last thing you want to say to your child. For her, her anxiety is a big deal and she may have reasons aplenty to feel anxious: failure, judgment, parental disapproval, embarrassment, etc. Instead, you can say, “I can see you’re feeling worried about this. I’m here to help if you need it.”
  • Discourage avoidance: Avoidance of the feared situation (such as, bunking the exam) makes the anxiety worse by reinforcing it. Helping your child choose the brave response (that is, writing the exam) will enable you to support him, not his anxiety.
  • Get professional help: If your child’s anxiety exceeds his capacity to cope with it, debilitating him, and making it difficult for him to study, you could consider seeking help from a qualified professional, such as a counsellor or clinical psychologist.

3) BODY: Banish the bodily tension
There are many ways to deal with your teen’s exam anxiety that is expressed at the physiological (or bodily) level:

  • Getting enough sleep
    Getting a full night’s sleep for your teen, especially during the exam season, is extremely important. Sleep is critical to learning—it is far more effective to learn something for four hours after your teen has slept for eight hours than for her to learn for eight hours after she has slept for four! Sleep deprivation can impact your teen’s thinking and performance on her exam. Sleep deprivation can also weaken the connection between her prefrontal cortex (her thinking brain) and amygdala (her feeling brain) and trigger anxiety. No wonder the students most prone to experiencing exam anxiety are the most sleep deprived ones.
    Read more about why sleeping is important before an exam here.
  • Breathing exercises
    Practising deep breathing on a regular basis can help your teen feel calm and relaxed, with a brain that is alert and active. Here are 2 breathing exercises that can be practised only for 5 minutes each every day. However, it is important to remember that your teen can derive benefit from them only when she practices them regularly.

i) Diaphragmatic Breathing: Sit in a comfortable position (either on the bed or chair). Keep your right hand on your chest and left on your stomach. Close your eyes softly. Now take a deep breath in through your nostril and make sure your chest does not rise, but your belly expands as you inhale. As you breathe in, count slowly from 1 to 5. Now exhale that breath through your nose, gently contracting your stomach, counting backwards from 5 to 1. As you gain practice in this deep breathing technique, you won’t have to keep your hands on your chest and stomach to monitor the expansion and contraction.

ii) Flower/Candle breathing: Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Now take a long, deep breath as if you’re smelling a beautiful flower. Then, exhale it like you’re blowing out a candle on a birthday cake.
Read more about breathing exercises your teen can practice here.

  • Radical downtime
    Our brains need deep rest, anything that is relaxing and rejuvenating, that involves doing nothing purposeful. An activity that does not require highly focused thought is one of the most powerful things we can do for our brains. Radical downtime is an enormously important antidote to the mind-scattering and mind-numbing effects of 24/7 technology and multitasking. Radical downtime does not mean playing video games, watching TV, surfing YouTube videos, texting with a friend, or participating in organised sport or activities.
    What can your teen do to get some radical downtime? Daydream, meditate, and sleep. Recommends Justin Coulson, parenting expert and author of 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know, “Get time outside in nature when studying for exams. Downtime matters to help your brain catch up with all the learning your teen is doing.” Try mindfulness meditation with your teen by downloading apps such as Headspace or Mind Yeti, which can be particularly useful at times of stress. Encourage your teen to look outside the window (instead of turning to technology) the next time you’re driving together.

4) EXAM DAY TIPS: Keep the anxiety off!
The pointers below can serve as a useful reminder to your teen about reducing his exam anxiety before, during, and after the exam. Download and print the chart below and give it to your teen:

How to help your teen handle Exam Anxiety

In a Nutshell

  • While most people feel nervous before an exam, some feel particularly tensed and anxious. Exam anxiety can impair performance in the exam and make making mistakes likely
  • Exam anxiety expresses itself in a person’s thoughts, bodily signs, behaviour, and emotions
  • Parental pressure is one of the biggest sources of exam anxiety. Other sources include lack of preparation, fear of failure, negative thinking, competition, and negative past experiences

What you can do right away

  • Help your child challenge her negative self-talk
  • Empathise with your child’s feelings, rather than brushing them aside
  • Ensure your child gets enough sleep and radical downtime during exams
  • Don’t review the question paper with your child after her exam

#KeepCalmExamOn with ParentCircle!

Stressed about exams? Call our Counsellors on 8754414666 / 044-66236611 in Feb (Tues & Fri, 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.)

About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 13 February 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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