From Fort River’s Mental Health Team: Ruth Killough-Hill, Ana Encarnacion, Dr. Pat Schumm, Dr. David Rutherford, Melanie Collins, Jessica Rudnick, Miguel Aquino
Children can have anxious thinking for myriad of reasons. They could feel anxious due to a fear of seeing monsters, thunderstorms, the dark or because they worry they’ll become sick again. All of the worries or anxious thinking derive from negative thoughts that something bad will occur, whether these events can realistically occur or not. For example, a child might worry about going to bed at night because they think they will see a monster in their room. Although they have never actually seen a monster in their room, that doesn’t negate their thinking that a monster could actually be there. They worry anyway. Anxious thinking about tests is similar. Children worry they won’t know the material on the test, will be evaluated as “not smart”, won’t be able to remember items on the test, or generate other negative thoughts that produce anxiousness.
Sometimes these anxious thoughts can affect how a child feels physically. The child may not realize they are feeling anxious but can feel the sensations of the anxiousness in their bodies. They may develop a headache; “butterfly” feelings, pain, tightening or nausea in their stomachs, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness, or feeling faint. As a parent, take notice if your child is physically not feeling well but doesn’t seem to be sick. This could be a sign that they are anxious and worrying about something such as a test.
What can a parent do to alleviate their child’s their anxious thinking or even interrupt anxious thoughts? There are some basic, helpful steps a parent can take. Make sure your child gets enough sleep every night and nutritious food every day. Review what they’re eating to determine they are ingesting balanced diets, with limited amount of sugar or “junk” food. Exercise helps a child to be healthy and to produce “happy” chemicals in the brain (serotonin) that can interrupt or eliminate anxious thinking. Next steps involve helping your child put the “test” in proper perspective. Talk to your child about the “Growth Mindset”. Instead of thinking that getting every question correct is the most important objective, Growth Mindset explains how all people learn through making mistakes. In fact, if a child makes a mistake and understands how to correct this mistake, they will learn and better retain this information. One learns through making mistakes and no one is perfect. Another important strategy to reduce anxiousness about tests is to explain how tests are only one tool for evaluating a child’s understanding of the curriculum and not a determiner of intelligence. Not only can children demonstrate their smarts in multiple ways (artistically, physically, visually, orally) but they need to feel valued for who they are so they can feel confident in themselves and therefore better able to do well on a test. Helping your child learn how to prepare for tests also can alleviate anxious thinking because they will know the material on the test with assurance. Lastly, talk to your child about eliminating negative thoughts such as “I can’t do this” and replacing them with positive thoughts such as “I can do this” or “I’m going to do the best that I can”. Positive thinking boosts your child’s confidence for any test.
And a reminder and plug: practicing mindfulness helps a child learn to relax, feel calm and let go of their anxious thoughts. Taking deep, slow breaths and consciously relaxing your muscles, one at a time, can invigorate your child's body and allow them to focus better on the exam.