Can Parents Have Test Anxiety Too? - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

Being aware of separating your child’s anxiety from your own is not an easy feat. Parents naturally want to shield their kids as much as they possibly can from life’s negativity and sometimes they do this by taking on their child’s burdens. Some parents do it so much that it can be a challenge to see where the parents’ emotions end and the child’s emotions begin. I’ve written about this topic before, but today I wanted to focus on how it relates to test anxiety for parents and children.

Giving Children Permission to Have the Anxiety Instead of Acting it Out

In a New York Times article parents in Florida were expressing their anger and dissatisfaction with all the state testing. This probably didn’t surprise many Brooklyn families who’ve been dealing with how test anxiety affects their children for years now.

While some parents, I’m sure, are appreciative of the tests and see them as a concrete means to mark their children’s progress, many of the parents in my office are more concerned about how their children are being affected by the testing. Like the article, they tell stories of how their kids are avoiding school and how they are having stomach aches or engaging in self-injuring behaviors all in order to manage this test anxiety. What doesn’t often get spoken about is the test anxiety for parents.

Test Anxiety for Parents: And You Thought You Were Done…

I also see many parents whose anxiety is through the roof while the child seems fairly calm. If the parent acts out his or her anxiety without being attuned to it then the child’s anxiety often gets expressed in these other ways. If the parent can be aware of their anxiety instead of it seeping through then the child can learn how to express his or her anxiety in a healthier way.

I’m often talking in sessions or on this blog about modeling and how this is the most effective way of teaching your child. How you and your partner disagree, how you show your love, how you show your fear are all laying the foundation for how your children will learn to do these things.

The way that parents express their own feelings is an incredibly strong predictor of their child’s ability to ‘bounce back’ and withstand set backs and face challenges, whatever they are. This is especially true when it comes to the so-called ‘negative’ emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, or depression (but how one is allowed to express happiness is important too!)

When testing comes around I often see two extremes of parental reactions: avoiding the feeling (“It’ll be fine–stop worrying so much,”) or becoming hyper intense (“There’s so much riding on this! If you don’t do everything you can RIGHT NOW you’re not going to get anywhere!”) While both are understandable reactions, it’s important to note that these are, indeed, reactions, not well-thought out, well-felt out responses to a major concern.

Fortunately, testing doesn’t call for a life saving reaction (unless your child is engaging in self-harming behaviors to express their feelings—then there needs to be immediate steps taken for safety before any of the other work can be done), and will be better served by a response that takes the whole family’s differing anxieties into consideration.

Test Anxiety in Parents: How Have You Made it Through So Far?

You may have, more or less, successfully coped with your own strong feelings throughout your life by becoming heightened or by walking away. Depending a good deal on how you were raised or what life experiences you’ve had along the way situations like this can bring up a fight or flight reaction. But are you reacting to the test anxiety in general (meaning, “There is a test that is going to determine a great deal of my child’s future, how do I make sure she or he is prepared for it?”) or are you reacting to how your child is expressing his or her test anxiety (meaning, “Is she not taking it seriously enough?” or “He’s spending so much time crying about this!”)? Either way it is important to separate your reaction from your child’s.

Is it My Fault? Nope.

In all my years of doing this work I’ve always met parents whose actions were based in their love for their child. It’s important to note this because parents very often feel judged—let’s be honest, very often are judged—by how they are parenting. But every parent I’ve met in my work is doing the best they can to figure out how to help their kids. Parenting is exposing work. I appreciate any mother or father who seeks help or support because, strangely, the world seems to think we’re all just supposed to know what to do.

Our original recipe for how to be a parent was how we were parented. Most people got some mixed ingredients for this. Some great stuff and some stuff they’d rather not pass on to the next generation. The lucky ones are the parents that are able to reflect on this. It’s not necessarily about simply saying that you want to be just like my mother or no matter what I’m not going to be like my father—it’s more important (and far more difficult!) to have a sense of who you are and how those parental decisions affected you so that you can make your own decision on the kind of parent you want to be.

The hyper aware parents and the avoiding parents both care deeply for their children, but whenever I see extremes in parenting I’m wondering how much of the parent’s feelings are getting in the way of providing the child with what she or he needs. Often in the course of a discussion with a parent we can sort through this.

Sure the kid is stressed. But how can you manage your own anxiety and fear in order to help your daughter or son take care of theirs? In order to understand text anxiety for parents my job is to help the family:

  1. recognize the anxiety in the parent that is separate from their child
  2. recognize the anxiety of the child that is separate from the parent
  3. examine how these two anxieties interact

If you’d like to talk further about how testing may be affecting you and your family and how to better manage some of the fears, anxieties, and frustrations, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an e-mail.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)