My 14-year-old suffers from severe anxiety over exams
‘It can really help if she can identify her anxious thoughts and describe the impact’
My daughter gets into a spin before tests and this affects her performance. Photograph: Getty Images
Question: My daughter is 14 and in second year of secondary school. Her main anxiety is about school and she gets very worried about tests even the weekly class one. She is smart and does well in most subjects so it is nothing to do with ability. However, she gets her head into a spin before tests and this affects her performance and she not do as well in them as she could.
It is not as if she doesn’t prepare for exams as she does put study time in and works hard at the subjects. But as the morning of the test or exam approaches she works herself into a state which peaks just before it starts.
Aside from all the stress this puts her under she is beginning to believe that she is not good at subjects such as maths and English (when she has the ability) and it is affecting her confidence.
Though she was always a slightly anxious child, all these problems really started when she began secondary school when all the pressure and expectation increased along with the “dreaded” tests.
We don’t put too much pressure on her – all we want is for her to try her best and our main priority is, of course, her happiness. I’m aware that she is going to be doing the Junior Cert next year and am worried this is all going to get worse.
While many children would benefit more from project-based learning, unfortunately exams are a central feature of the education system in general and the Junior and Leaving Certificates in particular. The fact that you have to demonstrate a couple of years’ learning in the confines of a two- to three-hour formal exam makes this a very pressured format that it is hard for all children to succeed at.
Many children suffer from exam nerves and up to 20 per cent suffer from relatively severe anxiety when faced with the prospect of a formal test. Unfortunately, as you have discovered, exam anxiety can lead to underperformance and in the peak of anxiety, many children find their “minds going blank” or being unable to concentrate or becoming overly distracted during the exam time. Many display physical symptoms of anxiety such as stomach pains, dizziness, and headaches in the run-up to and during exams.
It can really help if she can identify her anxious thoughts and describe the impact on her body
Causes of exam anxiety
There are lots of different reasons for exam anxiety. Sometimes it is due to the child avoiding study, being poorly organised and not preparing for exams which, of course, makes them very anxious when the exam day finally comes.
Other children, like your daughter, are studious and well prepared, though they still get emotionally overwhelmed when the exam approaches. This type of anxiety is almost like a panic attack and once it builds it is hard to stop.
For example, the anxiety might start with nervous symptoms such as butterflies in the stomach which distract the child from performing and make them think they are not going to do well. These anxious thoughts increase their physical symptoms which in turn increases their anxious thoughts until both peak in a panic.
Helping your daughter express her worries
There are lots of different ways to help your daughter and perhaps the most important is to help her talk about her worries and what is going on for her. In particular, it can really help if she can identify her anxious thoughts and describe the impact on her body.
For example, she might identify thoughts and reactions such as “I worry I am going to fail and then my stomach tightens in a panic” or “I worry my mind will go blank and then I become dizzy and can’t think”. As well as talking, it can be helpful to write out her thoughts and worries. Sometimes, writing down and “purging” worries is a good technique that can be employed in the run-up to an exam as a means of getting the worries out of her head and onto paper.
Make sure to collaborate with your daughter’s school about helping your daughter
Once identified you can help your daughter learn to challenge her worries. A good way to do this is help her write down a coping affirmation that is a counter-balance to the worry such as “I will relax and do my best” or “when I get going and read the exam paper I know I will feel better”.
Help your daughter manager her symptoms of worry
It is also important to help your daughter manage the feelings of worry in her body. There are lots of great techniques such as focusing on relaxing her breathing for a few minutes or becoming mindful and accepting of her feelings (rather than agitated by them).
All these techniques are best practised away from exam time so she develops a skill for applying them when she most needs them.
Try as much possible to encourage your daughter to have other relaxing activities and interests in her life that counterbalance the stress of exams
For example, you could get into the habit of doing relaxation techniques with your daughter each evening before sleep or you could attend a yoga or mindfulness class together.
Work with your daughter’s school
Make sure to collaborate with your daughter’s school about helping your daughter. Once they are aware of her anxiety the teachers and year head may be able to offer her special support such as counselling or give her special coaching in exam techniques etc.
Consider enrolling your daughter for a study skills course especially one that is designed to be helpful for young people who suffer from exam anxiety. There are lots of courses advertised online and your daughter’s school may be able to recommend one or even provide a course in the school itself.
Encourage an anxiety-free zone and healthy lifestyle at home
Try as much possible to encourage your daughter to have other relaxing activities and interests in her life that counterbalance the stress of exams.
One or two hobbies she is passionate about that you support could make all the difference. In addition, encourage your daughter to have a healthy lifestyle with a good routine of exercise, relaxation, sleep and enjoyable leisure with friends. All this will help her in the long term.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker, psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus programmes. He will be delivering a talk on promoting positive self-esteem in children in Dublin on Wednesday, May 10th. See solutiontalk.ie for details