Kent Toussaint is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  He specializes in helping kids, teens and their families find more happiness as both individuals and family members.  For more information about Kent, visit his website at  


Test Anxiety

by Kent Toussaint, MA MFT


October 2008


Your kids are back in school, and now the work is even more intense.  Your kids are one year closer to graduating and the grades seem even more important than ever before.  Sometimes this pressure can lead to test-anxiety, destroying your child’s confidence and ability to succeed.


Test-anxiety!  What is that?


Test-anxiety is a form of performance anxiety that both children and teenagers alike experience that can hold your kid in its grasp of incapacitating fear.  Before a test, your youngster may feel so pressured to succeed that she starts to panic.  This in turn triggers her body to release the hormone adrenaline, sometimes creating a nasty anxiety attack.  The physical symptoms of this can often be a racing heart, headache, shortness of breath and sweating… all which can lead to an inability to focus on the task at hand. 


So what’s wrong with that?  I’ve heard you say before that a certain amount of anxiety is good for kids.


Yes, that’s true.  It is important for children to experience a healthy amount of anxiety as it prepares them to face more difficult challenges in adulthood.  However, your test-terrorized child may need some additional guidance from you to manage his overpowering nerves. 


After all, if your kid is feeling too much anxiety about tests and important school projects, it might paralyze him into inaction leading to unnecessary failure.  If left unchecked, he could be stuck in a cycle of feeling overly worried and unprepared before tests, failing them and then dreading the next exam even more, leading to further failure.  The longer this cycle continues, the harder it is to break. 


It’s just a test.  What could be so terrifying?

Ultimately, it is the fear of failure that can lead to debilitating test-anxiety.  Sometimes it is self imposed, and other times your child can be subjected to undue pressure by teachers, peers and even you.


Me?  Are you saying that I may be responsible?


It’s possible.  Every family is different.  Take a minute or two and really ask yourself:

  • “How hard do I push my kid to succeed?”
  • “Do my actions actually motivate and help my child to do better; or could what I say actually come across as intimidating or threatening?”
  • “What ratio of praise vs. criticism do I give to my kid?”


Do your answers surprise you?


Well, that’s not fair.  I’m trying really hard to make sure that my kid does the very best that she can.  What am I supposed to do; coddle her and tell her that no matter what kind of grades she gets that it’s just fine?


No.  Pampering your kid and putting zero pressure on her is not the answer either.  Perhaps, there is a middle ground however between demanding perfection and babying your child. 


I don’t understand what you mean by “middle ground.”  He’s either succeeding or failing, what’s the “middle ground?”


Test anxiety often can be attributed to an unwavering need for perfectionism.  Unfortunately, achieving perfection is rarely attainable and never on a consistent basis… especially for a youth.  Yet when children feel pressured to be perfect, they generally do not achieve their potential because all they can focus on is the fear of disappointing you. 


The middle ground is helping her prepare for her test in a calm and supportive way.  The middle ground is setting the example with realistic expectations.  The middle ground is recognizing the often overlooked successes as much as – if not more than the mistakes.


Hmm… Okay, how do I help my kid prepare for a test without the arguing and the attitude?


First, check your attitude at the door.  If you approach him with impatience or snippiness, your kid will pick up on it and react… bringing about crazy-making results. 


Second, listen to your child’s fears about his classes, teachers, expectations, etc. without trying to change his mind... even though you may really, really want to.  Often, a little quiet understanding on your part can help reduce some of that anxiety he’s feeling.  Pressuring him to change his mind might actually increase his fears, not eliminate them.


Third, collaborate with your kid on setting up a structured homework/study schedule.  Make sure to plan around meals, appropriate bed times and a chance to have fun each day.  All three are important.  Your child needs healthy nutrition to fuel his body and brain.  Without it and enough sleep (8-10 hours), your kid will be at a great disadvantage when test taking.  Your kid will more than likely do better and feel more at ease with a full belly and a well rested brain than a hungry and half-asleep head overflowing with facts and formulas that he can’t make sense of.  Don’t forget, if your kid doesn’t take time out to relax and have fun, he won’t be able to release some of that pent up tension that is distracting him from doing his best. 


Fourth, teach your child to accept mistakes as a natural part of life both through your words and your actions.  Slip-ups are not monsters to be feared and avoided.  Errors are to be embraced as they are our greatest teachers.  When shame is removed from failure, there is a much greater chance of taking responsibility for one’s actions.  We can be honest with ourselves about what we did wrong and how we want to improve because we are not embarrassed by disappointment. 


But don’t I need to make sure that she feels bad if she does poorly in school so she starts to work harder?


If your kid is suffering from test-anxiety, she already does feel bad… really bad.  It doesn’t help her to feel even worse.  Besides, it is probably less about working harder and more about working smarter and being more organized… something that kids and teens are notoriously bad at. 


Guide your child toward studying in a systematic way.  Accept her successes as well as disappointments with a balanced perspective.  If you can help her be more confident by showing that you love her and are proud of her no matter how she does, she just might relax enough to get out of her own way.  Remember, a relaxed and confident student will generally be a more successful and less anxious test taker.


If you would like more information, please feel free to call for a complimentary phone consultation:


Kent Toussaint, MA

California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

(818) 983-7728