Test Anxiety: What Is It and How to Help Your Teen Manage It

It turns out test anxiety is far more common than most people realize with up to 40% of students experiencing exam anxiety at some point

by Nancy Reynolds

This Post: Test Anxiety: What Is It and How to Help Your Teen Manage It

Written By: Marybeth Bock

Your daughter has a big U.S. History test coming up…

She’s been studying for days. She’s re-read all the chapters, painstakingly poured over all her notes, and created flashcards for all the pertinent information she knows will be on the test so she can quiz herself. She even attended early-morning review sessions with her teacher. 

She knows the content forward and backward. She’s ready.

She’s confident.

Yet, somehow, she walks in the door after school on the day of the test in tears. 

“Mom! I don’t know if I even passed! I thought I knew the material but I didn’t even finish the test in time. I don’t know what happened… I just froze! I tried so hard!”

Sound familiar? 

Test Anxiety: What Is It and How to Help Your Teen Manage It


What Is Test Anxiety?

According to the American Test Anxiety Association, test anxiety is a silent academic killer. “It’s a form of performance anxiety characterized by an overwhelming sense of worry, nervousness, or unease about an imminent test or exam.” The anxiety can take various forms, ranging from mild to severe, and can occur before, during, or even after taking a test.

How Common Is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety is more common than most parents and students realize. According to Dr. Carolina Estevez, PsyD at Health Match, “About 10-40% of students experience test and exam anxiety at some point, and about 25% of students have said they experience high levels of anxiety related to tests or exams. It’s also thought that test anxiety is more common in females than in males.”

What Are the Symptoms of Test Anxiety?

Here are a few telltale signs your son or daughter might be dealing with test anxiety. 

Physical Symptoms

Upset stomach or nausea, headaches, migraines or dizziness, rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling or shakiness, muscle tension or tightness, dry mouth, and shortness of breath. Some kids even feel as though they might pass out. 

Emotional Symptoms

Worrying excessively about the exam, feelings of fear, dread, or hopelessness, irritability or moodiness, restlessness or agitation, low self-esteem or self-confidence.

Cognitive Symptoms

Racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, memory lapses and forgetfulness, difficulty organizing information, blanking out during the test, and negative self-talk.

Could Your Teen Have Test Anxiety?

With final exams around the corner, most teens are gearing up for the final big (stressful) push before the school year ends. 

 In some cases, our kids will have two or even three final exams in one day and their exam grades hold the power to make or break their final GPA, which adds to their stress. 

Of course, some level of stress before taking a test is normal. However, if your child’s level of anxiety and stress feels downright paralyzing, it’s time to take action.

What Can Cause a Student to Develop Test Anxiety?

Fear is the root cause of all test anxiety, but it can be broken down into several distinct types.

1. Fear of Failure or The Impact on GPA

For some students, there’s a lot at stake. They fear failing the test or doing poorly, not passing the class, or having their poor test score impact their GPA and, hence, their chance of getting into selected colleges. 

2. Lack of Preparation

Whether they didn’t put forth the necessary effort to prepare or they aren’t confident they prepared adequately, feeling ill-prepared can trigger test anxiety. 

3. Struggling with Perfectionism

Unrealistic expectations of achieving a high or perfect score or fearing mistakes can increase anxiety levels.

4. Past Negative Academic Experiences

Previous experiences of failure or embarrassment from doing poorly can create a fear of repeating those same experiences in the future.

5. External Pressure

External pressure from parents, teachers, coaches, tutors, or peers to perform well on tests contributes to anxiety.

How to Help Your Teen Manage Their Test Anxiety

Focus on Being Prepared

Have them focus on putting the best study methods into practice. Being fully prepared (or at least being as prepared as possible) for a test certainly isn’t the cure-all, but it can make a BIG difference in putting anxiety in its place.

If they’re struggling to find a study technique that works for them, have them reach out to their teacher or counselor at school.

There are also helpful study tips and videos on YouTube and TikTok. Be sure they’re organized and tackle studying the material every night rather than cramming the night before. Also, avoid distractions at all costs and encourage them to take practice tests beforehand so they know what material they should focus on.

Talk About It Openly

The more they talk about it, the more they can compartmentalize their fear and anxiety. Are they as prepared as they can be? Have they tried their best? Are they walking in with realistic objectives and expectations? Are they fully aware that no matter what grade they receive on their test, it will never define who they are? Some kids also benefit from journaling their fears and “what ifs” which helps them to unload emotions and gain perspective. 

Set Realistic Expectations

Is this the toughest teacher in the school? Does your teen have difficulty grasping the material in this class no matter how hard they study? Make sure your teen has fair, reasonable, and realistic expectations before they sit down and take the test. Remind them (and yourself) that there is a college and career path for everyone and that failing or passing any one test won’t ruin their future. 

Practice a Healthy Sleep Schedule

Don’t underestimate the power of healthy eating and getting a good night’s sleep the night before the exam. Sleep is a powerful stress reliever! Also, make sure they avoid a sugary breakfast or too much caffeine that morning. Instead, they should eat a protein-packed breakfast to keep them feeling full and energized to tackle the day. 

During the exam, Healthline suggests taking several slow, deep breaths, and consciously relaxing your muscles one at a time. Also, read each question slowly and more than once. Focus on one question at a time to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

What If Nothing Seems to Help With Your Teen’s Test Anxiety?

Even with a disciplined study schedule, a positive attitude, and proper self-care, some students still experience severe test anxiety. In these cases, your child’s pediatrician or your family doctor can do a full evaluation to determine what’s needed to control their anxiety.

A doctor may suggest medication and/or refer your teen to a counselor or therapist who can help them cope with feelings of self-doubt, low self-esteem, or fears about their future – all of which could be triggering their anxiety.

You also might be able to get approval from your teen’s school (with proper medical documentation) to receive special testing accommodations. Anxiety disorders (including test anxiety) are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Once approved, your student can take exams in a separate room and may be given additional time to complete tests.

Regardless, you and your teen mustn’t assume their test anxiety will simply “go away.” If left unaddressed or untreated, it can have long-term negative consequences on their academic performance and, more importantly, a lasting impact on their self-esteem, and overall health and well-being. 

Above all, remind your teen that stress is not the enemy – it’s part of life for all of us and we can use it to fuel our motivation and reach our goals.


Marybeth Bock, MPH, is a Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.


If you enjoyed reading, “Test Anxiety: What Is It and How to Help Your Teen Manage It,” you might also enjoy reading these posts!

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