13 November 2023

AUTHOR: Lecturer for the Centre for Change and Complexity in Learning (C3L) at UniSA Dr Rebecca Marrone

Maths anxiety isn't just a fleeting nervousness before a maths test; it's a genuine, deep-seated dread of numbers that affects many children – and even extends to adults.

This fear can cripple a child’s ability to perform in maths, limiting future educational and career choices. But the silver lining is that parents have a crucial role in helping their children navigate and overcome this anxiety.

Gender stereotypes make angst add up

One of the more intriguing dimensions of maths anxiety is gender. Studies consistently show that girls, on average, report higher levels of maths anxiety than boys. This disparity exists even when girls perform as well as, or even outpace, their male counterparts in maths courses.

A large part of this disparity arises from societal beliefs and stereotypes. Many girls, often subtly, are influenced to believe that they might not be as ‘naturally adept’ at maths as boys. And even if not explicitly stated, these stereotypes can diminish confidence and heighten maths anxiety.

These stereotypes can unintentionally seep into the classroom, where girls' challenges in maths may be wrongly attributed to ability, whereas boys' struggles may be ascribed to lack of effort.


A promising approach to addressing some of these issues is through creativity. By presenting maths in new and interesting ways, and by reshaping how problems are approached and introduced, children can engage with the material on a deeper and more intuitive level.

As well as emphasising creativity in maths education, educators are challenging gender stereotypes, and introducing real-world problem-solving approaches. When teachers introduce maths problems that relate to real-world scenarios or leverage storytelling, they make maths more relatable. Making these abstract concepts tangible can help demystify them, and reduce worry and anxiety.

Parents can help in a number of ways. If you’re helping your child with maths, feedback should always be constructive and based on effort rather than innate ability. Compliments such as “you worked hard on this problem, and it shows,” can be far more beneficial than generic praises of intelligence. It’s important to see mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failures.

Risk-taking, especially for girls who might be more hesitant due to fear of failure, should also be encouraged. The act of attempting difficult maths problems and celebrating the effort, irrespective of the outcome, can be empowering.

10 tips for parents to help children with maths anxiety

Calculating the cause

Overcoming maths anxiety is not just crucial for students, but for parents too. It ensures personal growth, fosters better interactions and prevents the inadvertent transmission of maths fears to children. Here's a guide tailored for parents:

  1. Reflect on past experiences: Understand where your anxiety stems from. Was it a particular teacher, a challenging year or peer comparison? Recognising the origin can be the first step in addressing it.
  2. Acknowledge your feelings: It's okay to admit you have maths anxiety. Accepting it can be liberating, and it's the first step toward tackling the issue.

For personal growth:

  1. Start small: Reintroduce yourself to maths at your comfort level. There are numerous adult education courses and online resources that offer beginner courses. Over time, as you gain confidence, you can tackle more complex topics.
  2. Make it fun: Engage in maths-related games or puzzles. Apps like Sudoku, cross-number puzzles, or even board games such as Monopoly can make maths feel less intimidating.
  3. Seek peer support: Just as with kids, group learning can be beneficial for adults. Join a local community class or online forum. Discussing and solving problems collaboratively can reduce the fear associated with the subject.


When interacting with kids:

  1. Practice positivity: Even if you feel anxious, project positivity when discussing maths with your child. This prevents the unintentional transfer of your anxiety to them.
  2. Learn together: If your child asks a maths-related question you're unsure of, take it as an opportunity to learn together. Explore the answer jointly, either through books or online resources.
  3. Focus on the process, not just the result: Emphasise the importance of trying and learning, rather than just the correct answer. This mindset can reduce performance pressure.
  4. Use everyday situations: Introduce maths organically. Whether it's measuring ingredients for a recipe, calculating discounts during shopping, or estimating travel time, real-world applications can make math seem more practical and less abstract.
  5. Seek external help: If you're unable to assist your child with certain maths problems because of your anxiety, consider hiring a tutor or using online resources. It's okay to seek help, and it ensures your child gets the support they need.
  6. Model resilience: If you encounter a challenging situation involving maths, show resilience. Let your child see you tackle it with determination rather than avoidance.
  7. Communication: Regularly discuss your child's feelings about maths. By understanding their emotions, you can provide better support and ensure they don't develop the same anxieties.

Remember, it's never too late for anyone, including parents, to overcome maths anxiety. Approaching the subject with curiosity, patience and positivity can rewrite the narrative around maths, not just for you, but for your child as well.

With the growing understanding of maths anxiety and its gendered aspects, teachers are stepping up to ensure a supportive environment. However, parents are equally influential in this journey. Every child, regardless of gender, has the potential to participate in mathematics. Parents have a role in helping to nurture and unlock that potential.

By understanding and actively working with this knowledge, we can ensure that every child can approach maths with confidence and enthusiasm.

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