Your 13-year-old has a math test tomorrow, and she’s stressing out about it. You wonder why, given that she’s always excelled in math. “But mom,” she says, “what if I don’t get above a 95?” What if she doesn’t? Why is this so important to her …. and to you? “In the super-competitive Bay Area, the fear of a low test grade can have a domino effect,” said Ellie Pelc, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Parents Place.

“I messed up on the test” soon becomes “I won’t get into a good high school,” which soon becomes “If I don’t get into a good high school, I won’t get into a good college.” And the roll down the hill to “I’ll never be successful at anything” is a fast slide.

What’s up with our kids? Why so much anxiety surrounding tests?

It’s a fact that the drive to succeed academically is fiercer than ever before. We know that schools “teach to the test,” which involves standards of performance that they are expected to maintain. We also know that it’s harder to get into many select colleges, as the number of applicants to highly competitive universities continues to soar.

“But it’s also true,” says Ellie, “that a lot of our kids are picking up messages—spoken and unspoken—from their peers, their teachers, maybe from us. It’s important, when we communicate with our kids, that we convey the importance of effort as much as achievement. Given the pressure-cooker environment we find ourselves in, this effort-achievement balance is tough to attain. After our children have brought home a 97 on a test, how many of us have unwittingly asked, ‘What question did you miss?’ or ‘Who scored higher?’”

Ellie offers a number of practical tips to help deescalate test anxiety:

  1. If your son is stressing out about an upcoming test or a test grade, have a conversation with him about his nervousness. Listen, get the facts, and then add perspective. If the test only accounts for 10 percent of his final grade, make sure he remembers that.
  2. Always acknowledge to your child that you know he is working hard and doing his best—and that’s what counts the most and that’s what makes you so proud of him.
  3. If your child isn’t proud of himself, or if he feels that he can do better, then more conversation and further actions are warranted: Why is his identity so linked to his GPA? How can you better support him so that he can do what he feels is his very best? These are larger questions that you should explore with your child over the long run.
  4. The night before a test, after your son or daughter has finished studying, spend some down time together as a family. Play a board game, watch a movie together, or share some funny stories. The time right before bed should be relaxing.
  5. Make sure that your child gets a good night’s rest. Research shows that more and more of today’s young people aren’t getting enough sleep, accounting for a number of emotional, physical, and cognitive impairments.
  6. Make sure that the morning of test, your son or daughter has had a good breakfast. Performing on an empty stomach is not a good recipe for anything.
  7. If test anxiety persists, you may wish to consult with an experienced professional who can help you and your child better understand its root causes and provide you both with techniques to quell the drama surrounding test performance.

Parents Place’s experienced clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, and psychologists, as well our parent educators, can help you and your children manage concerns about testing. Learn more about our counseling and consultation services. Or, call 415-359-2443 for more information.