Imagine this: Your child hates school because he fears being asked questions by the teacher in math class. Having to stand up in class mumbling a possible answer or worse staying silent can be extremely unnerving. He feels that he is being ridiculed by some of his brighter classmates due to this, which leads to a chain of behaviours ranging from avoidance, lying, making silly excuses and fearful responses.
He starts having panic attacks in school which you presume is ‘drama’ or an excuse as he is being evasive about his academic commitments. He starts avoiding his friends and due to anxiety, he starts ‘blanking out’ not being able to process anything that is taught in class, leading to him sinking in low self-esteem.
Many parents mistake panic attacks and this type of behavior as ‘drama’. It’s hard for parents to tell whether the child is truly having deep anxiety or if this is part of his or her attention-seeking behaviour.
This behaviour and these types of feelings are all too common with teenagers. Your teenager has to deal with the pressures of school assignments, exams and project work. Some of these may require team effort which may have many underlying challenges such as working with a bully or a popular kid in the project team.
What we need to understand is that a teenager’s brain is not fully developed neurologically. By this I mean that the part of the brain that processes reason, emotions and consequences is not fully developed yet.
So what can you do to support your child through anxiety that deepens when studying – especially during tests or exams?
When dealing with anxiety, discuss with your child what aspects of each subject is a source of anxiety. Some children worry that they will ‘blank out’ or ‘forget’ key information. If you know this ahead of time, you can introduce them to mind mapping and breathing techniques for concentration and calm.
For others, the issue is time management to complete classwork, tests or exams in school. Explain strategies such as tackling those questions that seem easy, how much time to spend on difficult questions and also recheck. Practice this by giving them mock papers with answer solutions. You will get a good idea of where the child stands regarding the subject.
Cut down on the ‘nagging’. Guide by directions, examples as well as understanding exactly where the knowledge gaps are.
Is the child taking short cuts in the steps that lead to careless mistakes? Is it due to a general lack of understanding the basics of a mathematical topic? Perhaps it is due to not being able to determine the exact question in tricky questions. Is the child getting distracted with other internet preoccupations?
It’s a great idea to get a chart or corkboard and write out types of errors the child is susceptible to. Could these be topics specifically relating to geometry or calculus? Again, you don’t need to know the topics yourself but it would be ful to know which topics your teenager requires more. Accordingly, offer him more resources by speaking to the tutor or a resource person who can clarify doubts.
Help the child focus on his/her weak areas by ‘partnering’ with him and his tutor/teacher. Be encouraging and tell him that it’s only a matter of technique and getting his fundamentals in order.
Is the issue motivation?
My suggestion is to get the child to see an experienced counselor. A lot comes up which the child isn’t able to tell the parent out of fear, guilt or just frustration. These dynamics do not exist with the counselor and the child is able to articulate without these emotions.
With many teenagers I have worked with, I have seen that the issue behind the lack of motivation is performance anxiety and a sense of low self-esteem which the parent may find hard to believe as the teenager seems to be behaving to the contrary!
Provide the child with a routine at home that gives him a sense of regulation. By this I mean make meal times a family time with at least one parent. Offer quality time for a fun activity together not just individually. Introduce a fun and therapeutic activity you can do together. You could swim together, play basketball together or quill, doodle or make custom jewellery together. This s to stay connected with your child. The child has an outlet that encourages a bond as well as channelize anxiety.
How to deal with Performance Anxiety
Tell your child that grades are all about adequate preparation. Offer the child as many resources as possible to become well prepared for the topics they will be tested on. Administer past test papers when they have exams coming up. Stay in close touch with the tutors/teachers throughout the school term to find out what topics they find challenging and offer them strategic relating to those topics and not being judgemental about their intellectual and comprehension capabilities.
Sometimes it may just require going back to doing 5-digit subtractions even if the child is in grade 8! You may find that the mistake is arising out of jumping steps in the subtraction process leading to faulty replies in complex sums even if your teenager has a good grasp on the topic! Keeping your cool with a teenager is like chasing sanity 24/7 but as a parent you need to model firmness, calm and self-control.
Here are some anxiety management techniques I share with my clients that I’m sure will be ful to any teenager facing anxiety at school whether it is in class or during exam time:
- Keep your child physically active as much as possible.
- Teach your child to count up to 5 for inbreathes and 10 on the outbreathes.
- Teach your child mindfulness techniques in noticing and observing anxious symptoms such as shallow breath, a racing heart, butterflies in the stomach and then practicing relaxation training.
- Tell your child that it is normal to feel anxious about tests, assignments and exams and them desensitize towards the anxiety by choosing positive coping thoughts that boost self-care and compassion. E.g.:. ‘It is a part of life we all have to go through and I will get through it’ or ‘It’s okay to be anxious but it’s not okay to run away from my fears, it never is as bad as I imagine it to be even if I do not do too well’.
Do not make studying a worrisome time for you as a parent. Many parents become very stressed especially during their children’s exam times. While academics are important, academic excellence should be about fun and engaging their curiosity. Encourage your child to articulate all areas of gap in his/her comprehension for each topic. This awareness is the first step into looking at practical solutions.
If you feel your teenager is demonstrating some of the behaviours I’ve discussed or you feel he or she needs support to work through anxiety related to school and academics, please reach out to me for a consultation. I also provide online sessions for students so that they can speak with me from an environment they are most comfortable in. For more information, please visit my website www.zen-compass.com.