Updated: May 1, 2019
"I feel so overwhelmed."
"I had another panic attack in science class today."
"I was in the bathroom at school, and all of sudden I started crying uncontrollably."
These are the comments I hear from teens when they're experiencing test anxiety. Here in Colorado, we've just come out of spring testing season (for standardized measures like CMAS and PARCC). And like clockwork, 3-4 teens a week tell me how stressed they are. Now that State testing is over, they have finals to look forward to.
Teens' stress about tests and finals often doesn't end at the classroom door. They may be more irritable at home, snap at you their parent when you ask them to take out the trash, or complain of problems with their friends, who are probably equally stressed.
It's hard to watch your kid struggle. You've probably asked them how you can help, or reached out to their overworked-underpaid school counselor for help. Maybe that counselor gave your kid a school planner. I work with a lot of school counselors, and every single one of them is committed to the children who are their charges. But in the State of Colorado, the average school counselor has over 100 kids above the recommended maximum of 250 students per counselor. (By the way, CO's average of 350 students per counselor is BETTER than the national average, which is 200 students above the recommended max, or 450 students per counselor.) But now that school planner is sitting at the bottom of your teen's book bag getting more crumpled by the day, and your teen looks even more flat/angry/grumpy/helpless than yesterday. You know not to ask about the planner--the last time you did that it started a huge fight.
What is Test Anxiety?
You may look at your completely unmotivated teen and think, "that's not anxiety." But anxiety can look like indifference in teens. Ask yourself: Was my teen motivated last semester/year/in another stage of school? If the answer is yes (especially if it was recently), then there's a chance that her indifference is a sign of anxiety.
Simply put, anxiety is a form of fear. When humans are afraid, we do one of three things: fight, flee or freeze. This response occurs in all living beings when survival is at stake. While your teen isn't in mortal danger before a test, she may feel like it. Think of test anxiety like an old fashioned smoke alarm. You know the kind: When the battery dies, the alarm sounds. Big blaring noise, usually at 3am. When a kid with anxiety sits down for a test, all the alarm bells go off in her body. If she's in the "fight" response she may be extra-snarky and conflict-prone with you and/or her friends. If she's in the "flee" response, she may procrastinate studying and avoid the topic with you. This can then turn into the fight response when you ask her about it. (Or have the gall to ask her, "How was your day?" Seriously, dad. How dare you?) And if she's in the "freeze" response, she may "blank" on some/most/all of her answers while taking the test.
If any of this sounds familiar, your teen may be experiencing test anxiety. It's not that she doesn't care, it's that she cares too much. She may not know that "blanking" is a symptom of test anxiety, and think she's just not good at that subject. OR she may know exactly how terrified she is, and be embarrassed because she's so freaked out.
A Mindful Approach to Test Anxiety
As parents, we want to help our teens. But what a lot of teens tell me is that they need to be heard first. In fact, if your teen feels listened to, she's probably going to be a lot more open to and capable of problem solving. So let her rant first. After a while she may say what she feels: "I feel overwhelmed", "I feel stuck," and/or "I'm afraid I'm going to fail." As soon as you hear a feeling (and she's done with that initial rant), repeat it back to her. That may sound cheesy, but it works. Don't forget, her mind is sped up. By repeating back the feeling she's just said, you help her slow down further. It might go something like this:
Your Teen: "I feel so stuck, Mom/Dad!"
You: "I hear you feel stuck."
Your Teen: "Yeah! Mr. Wilson is such a doofus. He gave us these practice problems for the test and they don't help. I get a different answer every time I try one. I'm afraid I'm going to fail."
You: "That doesn't sound fun. It sounds like you're really worried."
Your Teen: "No, I'm not worried. I'm frustrated."
You: "Oh, got it. You're frustrated."
Your Teen: "Yeah! I've really tried to understand those formulas, but it's just not making sense. It's so confusing."
You: "It's confusing."
Your Teen: "Yes."
If you're thinking, "well listening is fine but at some point we need to solve the problem," you're exactly right. Listening mindfully is just the first step. But it's such an important step that if you don't do it, you really can't solve the problem effectively. In my next post I will outline four steps that include how to effectively problem solve with your teen. Be on the lookout for that post mid-May (most likely May 16).
Most of the teens I work with only have a month or less left in school (as of May 1, 2019). Yet I'm working with several teens and parents right now to game plan their strategy for next year. You as a parent can practice your listening skills right now in preparation for those next steps I'll be offering in a few weeks. If you/your teen want more individualized help sooner, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a 20-minute free consult and to find out more about yoga therapy services.