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Coping with anxiety during exams by Joanne Goss (Clinical Psychologist)

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Parents can play a valuable role in helping their child to manage their anxiety during tests and exams.  There are two forms of coping with anxiety which parents and children can engage in: the use of practical techniques and open discussion.


Practical techniques are useful tools which the child can use to prevent and manage anxiety both before and during the tests and exams. 


Breathing exercises help to reduce anxiety and stress levels through regulating the flow of oxygen throughout the body and to the brain.  The “smell your favourite food” exercise is useful for children.  Encourage your child to recall what their favourite dinner (such as pizza, spaghetti, mom’s roast chicken) smells like.  When the child feels anxious, encourage him/her to breathe in deeply as though he/she was smelling the dinner and to then exhale.  Continually repeating this exercise will help to regulate the child’s breathing. 

Encourage your child to be alert to the use of self-talk.  Phrases such as “I can’t” should be changed to “I will try”.  Simply repeating a phrase such as “I will try this question” can prevent a sense of hopelessness and uselessness.  Positive self-talk helps children to visualise success.

Often children who are anxious about exams tend to “blank out” during the exam.  This means they are suddenly unable to recall information that they previously learnt and remembered.  Should your child experience this, encourage him/her to write down any words, phrases or numbers that may have something to do with the topic.  This helps the child to feel a little more in control of the situation which reduces anxiety.  Children often start to recall more of the necessary information from the associated words, phrases or numbers that they jotted down.  If the child is unable to recall anything, he/she should move onto a question which can be answered and then go back to it. 



Probably the most important, yet often the most neglected, aspect of helping children deal with anxiety (or any other difficult emotion) involves encouraging your child to discuss his/her experience with you.  Children are currently faced with multiple stresses that influence their academic performance.  These include expectations from teachers and parents (sometimes even when the parent thinks he/she does not have high expectations), struggles to be recognised by others, the need for approval and acknowledgement from others, high competition for achievement and excessive concerns about disappointing parents, teachers and/or themselves.  I strongly encourage parents to engage in open and honest discussions of these topics with your child.  Attentively listen to how they feel about the range of emotions and thoughts that they have in their lives, and seek to understand the stress that these may cause.  Be open and accepting of what your child tells you.  Through this authentic dialogue, the child will be able to process and deal with the emotions and thoughts associated with these experiences.  This will help to decrease the child’s general anxiety levels both inside and outside the exam or test room.  This type of discussion also helps to develop your relationship with your child and enhance his/her self-esteem.



If your child’s level of concentration and attention is being significantly negatively affected by his/her anxiety, it is recommended that you seek professional help from a psychologist or related professional health care practitioner


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