Parents with Mathemaphobia and Their Kids

Mathemaphobia, or math anxiety, is a common lifelong impairment. Research indicates that 10 to 20 percent of adults report math anxiety. Long after they finish their last mast test ever, many individuals with math anxiety are still haunted by tasks like how to split a restaurant bill or which toilet paper is cheaper to buy.

Math anxiety can be contagious between parent and child. According to a study in Psychological Science (Beilock et al., 2015), the more math anxious parents provided their 1st and 2nd grade children help on math homework, the worse their children performed in math. This group of children was also at greater risk for developing math anxiety themselves. While these well-intentioned parents were trying to help their children, they unknowingly transferred their own distaste and apprehension about math. This effect was isolated to math. The high anxiety math parents did not have a negative impact on their children’s reading performance.

If you are one of the many parents with math anxiety, your child is always watching you. Be mindful of the scary messages and attitudes about math that you are sending to your child. Refrain from reliving your math-filled-trauma past in front of your child. Use your phone’s calculator when you need to but don’t say it is because you hate or cannot do math. Delegate the task of math homework to a spouse, neighborhood high school student, or hire a tutor.

There are also helpful ways to respond when hear your child say that they hate math. First, always empathize with them. As parents we are wired to cheer up our kids, reassure them, and give our advice. Instead, simply empathize and reflect back what your child is saying, “You feel like you are the worst kid in math in your class.”  Empathizing does not mean that you agree, but instead you are listening to what your child is saying.  Then, help your child catch their negative thinking and together determine whether or not your child’s thoughts are valid, helpful, and accurate. If they are not, challenge your child’s thinking patterns to become more flexible. Help replace negative thinking like “Math is too hard. I will never be able to do it!” with more balanced thinking like “Fractions are tough but I am good at subtraction.”

If you are concerned with intensity in which your child detests math, the level of distress they exhibit doing math, or the extreme measures to which they go to avoid math, assessment and cognitive behavioral treatment may be indicated. Students with math anxiety who receive treatment can see improved math performance and not dread math for their lifetime like their own parents.

Beilock, S, Levine, S Malone, E. Ramirez, G and Gunderson E. (2015). Intergenerational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and  Anxiety, Psychological Science.