Exam Anxiety in Children and Teenagers: Parent Strategies

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Exam anxiety is a struggle many young people face. It can impact grades and well-being. My eldest has had so many exams lately, so this topic is very much on my mind!

The emotional weight of exam anxiety can be heavy, often leading to sleepless nights and anxiety-induced habits.

Is exam anxiety affecting your child?

What triggers this level of stress? And what can we do about it? Let’s talk it through from a child psychologist’s perspective!

What Fuels Exam Anxiety in Children & Teens?

Pressure to succeed often comes from multiple sources. Parents, teachers, peers, and self-induced pressure.

Exam anxiety can be related to all-or-nothing thoughts such as: “If I don’t pass this exam, I have no future.”

The Ripple Effect of Exam Anxiety: Beyond Just Grades

As a consequence of exam anxiety your child may experience a decline in self-esteem or increasingly doubt their abilities.

class of teens sitting an exam

Understanding Exam Anxiety in Children

Exam anxiety is a potent blend of fear and unease that goes far beyond “butterflies in the stomach.”

When your child faces this, they may feel as if their future is on the line with each tick of the exam clock.

The stakes feel high, and that weight can be a lot for young shoulders to bear.

Symptoms of Exam Anxiety: What’s Going On Inside?

Physical Symptoms of Exam Anxiety

Physically, your child might notice a rapid heartbeat or shallow breathing, often accompanied by nausea or stomach cramps.

These are telltale signs that your child’s body is in fight-or-flight mode.

Fight or flight is a primal reaction that prepares the body to face perceived threats.

Exam Anxiety: The Role of Adrenaline

In this state, the body releases adrenaline, a hormone that triggers several physical changes.

Adrenaline increases the heart rate, ensuring more blood and oxygen reach vital organs and muscles.

This rapid heartbeat might feel unsettling but is the body’s way of gearing up for action.

Breathing Changes

Shallow, rapid breathing also occurs.

This helps to oxygenate the blood quickly.

However, it can lead to feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness, as the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body shifts.

It’s only a temporary reaction and it’s not dangerous.

Digestive Reactions

The body diverts blood away from the digestive system to prioritize muscles and other critical areas.

This shift can cause nausea or stomach cramps, as digestion temporarily slows or stops.

Managing Exam Anxiety: Knowledge is Power

Understanding these physical symptoms can help your child recognize and manage their anxiety.

Techniques like deep breathing can counteract these responses. See below for a helpful deep breathing exercise.

If you want to deepen your understanding about anxiety so you feel clear on exactly which steps will help for your child, consider our mini-course, Knowledge is Power!

Knowledge is Power: Understanding Anxiety in Children course

The Emotional Toll of Exam Anxiety

Let’s not forget the emotional toll.

Test anxiety can send self-doubt skyrocketing while ability to focus plummets.

Your child may worry incessantly, replaying worst-case scenarios in their mind. This emotional whirlpool can sabotage performance.

Causes of Test Anxiety

There are several possible causes of test anxiety, including:

  • High expectations from teachers, or parents or themselves may increase the fear of failure and exacerbate anxiety.
  • Previous negative experiences on exams may lead to anticipatory anxiety, where young people worry about repeating past experiences.
  • Lack of preparation due to poor study habits, procrastination or inadequate time management can contribute to feelings of anxiety during exams.
  • Personal issues such as mental health concerns, family stresses, or peer pressure can affect students’ ability to focus and perform well during exams.

School Culture and Exam Anxiety

School culture plays a significant role in exam anxiety.

A highly competitive environment, strict performance evaluations, or an overwhelming number of tests can contribute to anxiety in children and teenagers.

If your child is quite sensitive to their environment, they are more likely to be affected.

It’s essential for teachers and parents to create a positive and supportive atmosphere to help students cope with exam anxiety. If your child’s school is highly driven and focused on exam results, as a parent you will need to work harder to support your child’s wellbeing. Try your best to counteract the idea that exams are everything.

Yes, exams are important. But no, they are not the be-all and end-all. And they are definitely not more important than your child’s mental health.

Outsmart Anxiety online parent course

Strategies to Manage Exam Anxiety

Developing Healthy Study Habits

One of the best ways to manage exam anxiety is by developing healthy study habits. Study sessions should be well-structured and include periodic breaks.

Even with older teenagers, you will probably need to provide a lot of support and “scaffolding” to ensure your child develops a healthy study routine.

For example, your child can take short breaks to get fresh air or meditate every 20-30 minutes during longer study sessions. You may need to remind them or help them set an alarm.

Help your child schedule regular practice tests if they have an exam coming up. They will help to familiarise your child with the exam format and reduce the fear of the unknown.

tween girl studying in bedroom

Relaxation Techniques

Incorporate relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, into your child’s exam preparation routine.

Encourage them to try this!

Find a quiet spot and sit comfortably.

Close your eyes gently.

Inhale Calm, Exhale Stress

Inhale slowly through your nose, counting to four.

Feel the air filling your lungs.

Imagine it’s calmness entering your body.

Hold your breath for a count of four.

Let this peacefulness settle within you.

Release Your Worries

Now, exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of six.

Picture your worries and stress leaving your body with each breath out.

Feel your shoulders relax and your mind clear.

Repeat and Reassure

Repeat this cycle four times.

With each breath, believe that you are becoming more relaxed and focused.

Remind yourself, “I am calm, I am prepared, I can do this.”

Gentle Return

When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes.

Stretch your arms and smile.

You’re now more relaxed and ready to take your exam.

Exam Anxiety: The Role of Positive Attitude and Mindset

A positive attitude and mindset can make a significant difference in managing exam anxiety.

Encourage yourself to gently replace negative thoughts with positive self-talk, and focus on the progress they have made during your study sessions. Think of yourself as a study coach, full of empathy and helping your child stay on track!

Ensure your child embraces a growth mindset by reminding them that hard work, dedication, and continuous learning can improve skills, knowledge, exam technique and academic performance.

Supporting Your Child During Exam Preparations

Collaboration with School

It’s crucial to maintain open communication with your child’s teachers and school staff throughout the school year.

You can gain valuable insights into your child’s academic strengths and weaknesses by regularly discussing their progress with teachers.

If your child is experiencing exam stress, consider seeking guidance from the school psychologist or pastoral care lead, who can recommend tailored strategies for managing anxiety.

This staff member will also be able to keep an extra eye on your child’s wellbeing. They may also be able to arrange extra measures during exams, such as rest breaks (which can be very helpful if a student feels panicky) and a separate room.

Establishing a Study Schedule

Helping your child create a structured study schedule can be beneficial in managing exam anxiety in children.

Begin by breaking down the material they need to cover into manageable chunks, and allocate time to each subject. Check in with them regularly to ensure they are on track.

Ensure your child takes regular breaks and maintains a balance between study and leisure activities.

You may also want to encourage them to limit the use of electronic devices during study sessions to minimise distractions and boost productivity.

Ensuring Proper Nutrition and Sleep to Be Exam-Ready

Good nutrition and sufficient sleep are key factors in supporting your child during exam preparations.

Encourage your child to maintain a balanced diet, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Proper nutrition can impact their mental performance and help combat stress.

Certain nutrients play a key role in brain health and stress management.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Found in flaxseeds and walnuts or algae oil capsules, omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain function.

They improve cognitive skills and memory, which are vital for learning and recalling information during exams.

B Vitamins

B vitamins, particularly B6, B12, and folic acid, are important for brain health. They are found in whole grains and leafy greens.

These vitamins aid in focus and help in the production of serotonin, which can reduce stress and improve mood.

Iron and Zinc

Iron, found in pulses and beans, and zinc, present in nuts and seeds, are important for cognitive function.

A deficiency in these minerals can lead to reduced concentration and memory.

Antioxidants

Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants. These compounds protect brain cells from damage and improve brain function.

Berries, oranges, and leafy greens are excellent choices.

Complex Carbohydrates

Whole grains provide complex carbohydrates, which supply a steady stream of energy to the brain. This helps maintain concentration levels over longer study periods.

Magnesium

Magnesium is crucial for brain health, particularly during stressful periods like exam preparation. It regulates neurotransmitters, aiding in brain function and nervous system health, which helps reduce anxiety and enhance relaxation.

Essential for efficient cognitive functioning, magnesium improves learning and memory, key aspects of studying.

Rich sources include nuts and seeds (like almonds and pumpkin seeds), whole grains, spinach, bananas, and even dark chocolate.

Beyond brain health, magnesium plays a role in stress management and promotes better sleep quality, both vital for maintaining mental well-being during exams.

Hydration Before Exams

Don’t forget hydration. Water is essential for brain function.

Dehydration can lead to fatigue and reduced cognitive abilities.

Sleep Before and during Exam Periods

Likewise, make sure your child gets enough sleep. Ideally, this will be 8 to 9 hours each night.

A well-rested mind is more receptive to learning and retaining information, reducing the risk of burnout and improving overall exam performance.

TAKE THE QUIZ!

Helping Your Child on Exam Day

Dealing with Last-Minute Anxiety

If your child experiences last-minute anxiety before their upcoming exam, encourage them to take slow, deep breaths.

It can help to focus on one particular thing “in the moment” (a form of mindfulness), such as stroking a pet or watching clouds float by. Focus on all the sensations associated with that activity in the here and now.

It can also be helpful for your child to move their body. Walking to school or the test centre will help to relieve tension, or simply doing some stretches.

Assure your child that they have prepared for the test and remind them that it’s natural to feel some nerves on exam day.

  • Advise your child to arrive early on test day to avoid any unnecessary stress.
  • Encourage them to take deep breaths and focus on calming their body and mind before the exam begins.
  • Suggest exercise such as going for a walk or stretching to help release tension.
little boy writing at a school desk

Staying Positive During the Exam

During the exam, it’s essential to prepare your child to stay positive and focused.

Teach them strategies to manage their time effectively and remind them to read the questions carefully.

  • Encourage your child to pace themselves throughout the exam, keeping track of the time remaining.
  • Suggest reviewing their test scores periodically, to identify which questions they should focus on for maximum points.
  • Emphasise the importance of staying calm even if they encounter a challenging question or lose their train of thought.

Exam Anxiety: Reframing Perspectives on Test Outcomes

Remind your child regularly that their worth is not determined by their test grade or the outcome of a test.

Remind them that while scores are essential, a perfect score is not the ultimate goal.

  • Teach your child to reframe their perspective by focusing on their personal growth and learning, rather than achieving a perfect score
  • Help them see the big picture and realise that one test does not define their entire academic success or future prospects
  • Encourage open communication and dialogue about their feelings post-exam, as a way to process test outcomes and ease anxiety

Seeking Professional Help For Exam Anxiety

While some test-taking anxiety may be typical, you should consider seeking professional help if your child’s stress levels are significantly impacting their everyday life.

High test anxiety can lead to poor exam performance and increase stress in other areas of life.

Keep an eye on your child’s behaviour and emotions. If you notice ongoing patterns of stress, nervousness, or avoidance, it may be time to consult with a mental health professional.

They can provide guidance and resources to help both you and your child navigate these stressful situations more effectively.

Remember, exam anxiety is not uncommon in children and teenagers, but recognising the signs and addressing them can go a long way towards ensuring their academic success and emotional well-being.

Exam Anxiety: The Impact of a Positive Learning Environment

Building Confidence and Resilience

Creating a positive learning environment starts with helping your child develop confidence and resilience.

This involves teaching them healthy study habits and good test-taking skills.

One of the best strategies to achieve this is by focusing on your child’s progress rather than solely on their exam results.

Praise their efforts and encourage them to learn from their mistakes, as this can go a long way in easing their fear of exams.

A recent study suggests that children with low cognitive control are more likely to develop anxiety, while those with higher cognitive control exhibit more resilience to stress. By nurturing your child’s cognitive abilities, you’re helping them overcome exam-related anxieties and empowering them to succeed academically.

To help your child build good study habits:

  • Encourage them to break study sessions into shorter, focused periods, with regular breaks.
  • Organise a designated study area that is free of distractions.
  • Work with them to create a study planner, setting achievable goals and outlining revision tasks.

Test Anxiety: Promoting Academic Achievement in a Balanced Way

In fostering a conducive learning environment, it’s essential to promote academic achievement while maintaining a balanced lifestyle.

Encouraging your child to develop healthy habits, such as getting enough sleep, can significantly improve their thinking and concentration.

It’s also vital to ensure that they have time to unwind and relax, as this can help reduce anxiety.

To support your child during exam periods:

  • Teach them test-taking strategies, such as reading through test questions first, managing their time effectively, and not spending too long on challenging items.
  • Help them recognise when they are struggling and let them know it’s okay to ask for help.
  • Share your own experiences of overcoming exam anxiety and learning from bad situations, as this can give them insights into how to handle their own emotions.
  • Encourage hobbies and physical activities that allow your child to release stress and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The first step in reducing your child’s exam anxiety is understanding their needs and acting accordingly.

serious teenage boy outdoors

Case Study: 16-year-old Joe

Joe is a 16-year-old student who experienced severe exam anxiety. His parents noticed his increasing levels of stress and decided to take action.

In Joe’s case, his anxiety symptoms manifested as difficulty sleeping, constant worry about exam performance, and panic symptoms including shortness of breath. He found it hard to concentrate on his studies, which led to a vicious cycle of anxiety and poor performance.

Joe was afraid of disappointing his parents and himself, which further exacerbated his anxiety levels.

Joe’s parents discovered that Joe’s case is not uncommon, as nearly 1 in 3 adolescents aged 13 to 18 years will experience an anxiety disorder.

They strategies they supported Joe with included:

  • Establishing a routine: Ensuring a consistent sleeping pattern and daily schedule dedicated to study, leisure and relaxation activities. They gave him extra support and checked in with him regularly.
  • Practising relaxation techniques: They introduced Joe to the guided breathing exercise in this article, which he practised several times each day and noticed an immediate difference.
  • Physical exercise: Joe’s parents knew that engaging in physical activities, such as swimming, helped Joe relax. They ensured he went swimming twice a week to relieve built-up tension and improve his overall well-being.

By implementing these strategies along with ongoing communication and support from his parents and teachers, Joe started to see gradual improvements in his anxiety levels and exam performance.

Exam Anxiety: Frequently Asked Questions

What causes exam anxiety?

Exam anxiety is usually a reaction to anticipating a stressful situation, like taking a test. When you’re under stress, your body releases adrenaline, which prepares it for danger. This “fight or flight” reaction can cause test anxiety in children and teenagers.

How to overcome test stress?

To overcome test stress, you can:

  1. Get enough sleep before an exam.
  2. Eat a balanced meal before the exam.
  3. Practice exams to familiarise yourself with the format and questions.
  4. Discuss your concerns and nerves with someone you trust.

Are there common symptoms of test anxiety?

Common symptoms of exam anxiety may include excessive worry, irrational fears, physical complaints like a stomachache or headache, and difficulty focusing. It’s important to recognise these symptoms early to help manage the anxiety.

Can parents help reduce exam anxiety?

Yes, parents can play a significant role in helping their children cope with exam anxiety. Listening to your child’s concerns, providing support and encouragement, and assisting them in implementing stress management strategies can make a positive impact 4.

Do strategies exist for managing stress before an exam?

Indeed, several strategies can help manage stress during exams:

  1. Practise relaxation techniques like deep breathing or visualisation.
  2. Engage in physical activity to release stress and improve focus.
  3. Break your study sessions into manageable chunks and avoid cramming.
  4. Keep a positive mindset and avoid negative self-talk 5.

Is medication an option for test anxiety?

In some cases, medication may be considered for children and teenagers with severe test anxiety. However, it is essential to consult a healthcare professional who can assess your situation and recommend the best course of action.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.


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