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What Your Kid's Upset Tummy May Really Mean

Photograph by Getty Images/Blend Images

Something that took me many, many years to figure out: I struggled with test anxiety. As an elementary school child, I never paid much attention to the standardized testing. It wasn't such a big deal in those days, so if I guessed on a few (or most of the questions), it didn't matter. It was when I got to high school and began preparing for the SAT that my test anxiety became a problem.

I could write beautiful essays no problem, but send a multiple choice test my way and I froze. Every. Single. Time. There was no amount of test preparation that would help calm those nerves. The minute I saw the test paper in front of me, all knowledge went flying out of my brain and I stared into space in a silent state of panic.

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I took the SAT so many times that I finally performed well on it the last time—not because I was more prepared but because I no longer cared. I lost the will to try. As it turned out, not caring was the best thing that could have happened to me.

These days I get phone calls about kids struggling with test anxiety in elementary school. Very young kids are taking lots of tests and being assessed so often that many of them are struggling.

Stomachaches, headaches and sleepless nights are common in kids with test anxiety. Often, the anticipation of the test triggers so much emotional turmoil that the child is exhausted and overwhelmed before she even sees the test in front of her.

The good news is that parents can help kids decrease their test anxiety. With a little practice, kids can learn to cope with the emotions that sometimes cause them to freeze up when tests land on their desks.

Young children don't always connect the dots between tests and tummy troubles.

1. Know the signs

The first step toward conquering test anxiety is recognizing the symptoms. Young children don't always connect the dots between tests and tummy troubles. If they complain of feeling "sick" a lot during times of testing, it's because they really do feel sick. They are, quite literally, worried sick.

Here's what you should look for:

  • Stomachaches
  • Headaches
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep)
  • Changes in eating patterns (suddenly eating significantly less or more that can't be accounted for by growth)
  • Restlessness
  • Agitated behavior
  • Nervous behavior (hair twirling, hair pulling, nail biting) that is new and different
  • Clinginess
  • School refusal
  • Excessive crying
  • Irritability

If you notice a few of those changes, talk to your child about what she feels like when she encounters a test at school. Many kids who struggle with test anxiety describe the following:

  • Mind going blank
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Disorganized thoughts
  • Forgetfulness
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Feeling insecure
  • Sweating
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Dry mouth
  • Rapid breathing

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2. Try deep breathing (really)

When kids come to me to work through test anxiety, they often tell me that they tried deep breathing once and it didn't work. Here's the thing about deep breathing: It's the single best thing you can do to calm an anxious mind, but it requires practice and patience.

For young kids (and even older kids), blowing bubbles is a great way to practice. Big kids love to blow bubbles with gum, while little kids love soapy bubbles in the back yard. Either way, bubbles teach kids to take a slow deep breath in, hold for a few seconds and release the air slowly.

The best time to practice deep breathing is when kids are calm, so make it part of your daily routine. Talk about what your body feels like after a few deep breaths. Make it a family calming ritual to get everyone involved.

If I'm being honest, I'm not surprised that test anxiety is on the rise among younger children.

3. Teach positive self-talk

Self-talk might feel a little strange at first, but once kids get into the habit of replacing their negative thoughts with positive ones, they are better able to cope with stress and anxiety. Kids have a tendency to get stuck in a negative loop. One low test score can cause even the calmest kid in the class to worry excessively about the next test. Learning to talk back to those negative thoughts is powerful.

It's important to teach realistic self-talk when working on decreasing those negative thoughts. Don't, for example, tell your kid to repeat, "I'm the best at spelling" over and over again. That's a setup. A better replacement thought is, "I studied my words and I can do this." That's both positive and grounded in reality.

Ask your child to name the negative thoughts that typically run through her mind during a test and come up with a list of replacement thoughts together. Write them on a small paper to tape inside the pencil box.

4. Get back to basics

Eat. Play. Sleep. Exercise. You can try all of the anxiety reduction strategies you want, but if your child is missing any of those essential "basics," anxiety will prevail.

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Kids need nutritious meals, 11 to 12 hours of sleep each night (for school age), plenty of free playtime and outdoor exercise. Sometimes play and exercise go together. Climbing trees, for example, is both fun and physically challenging.

If I'm being honest, I'm not surprised that test anxiety is on the rise among younger children. Sure, the pushing down of academics combined with frequent tests and assessments takes a toll. But it's not just that. Kids today are under-slept and over-scheduled. They need time to simply be kids.

Anxiety has a way of snowballing when left unchecked, especially among young children. If you suspect that your child struggles with anxiety, the best first step is an evaluation by a licensed mental health professional. In the meantime, get out those bubbles and get to work on deep breathing!

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