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Getting Over Math Anxiety

Pam Sorooshian offers some tips on how to resolve your own issues with math.

If parents can examine and work through their own anxiety related to math and recognize it’s source, they can get over it at least enough to not pass it on to their children. It very likely can be traced back to a particular incident that happened to you in school. 

Did you miss school because of chicken pox and come back to discover the class had moved on without you?

Did you feel lost and confused and just never could catch up?

Was there a subject that confused you and you always felt “dumb in math” after that? The culprit is most often either fractions or algebra. Very possibly you really do not want to even think about your own feelings about math. Avoidance is the most common result of math anxiety. You may think you aren’t even math-anxious, but math just never really comes up in your life. Those are the thoughts of a math-anxious person, though.

Math is everywhere and there is no chance at all that you’re not living a life immersed in mathematics.

You may not want to see it, because you associate it with shame, fear, and misery, but you are living in a mathematical world.

An example of mathematical thinking that you almost certainly engage in on a regular basis:

You’re at the grocery store, cart loaded, and you’re ready to check out. What do you do? You eyeball the lines at each check stand, noting how many people are in each of the lines. You also note how full each of their carts is. You notice that some check stands have baggers helping out while others don’t. You might even notice the rate of speed the checkers seem to be working. You quickly take in all that (mathematical) information, estimate the effects of all those variables in your head, and choose the line you think will move the fastest. This is not just mathematics; this is sophisticated and complex mathematics that includes solving systems of simultaneous equations and incorporating probability-of-error estimates. Yet you do it almost effortlessly.

So, I hope you realize by now that you’re clearly a math genius. (As long as we don’t put it all down on paper, right?) Seriously, you HAVE a “math brain.” I could give you many other examples of how you do higher-order mathematical thinking all the time in your daily life. The fact that you doubt your own math ability, that you think of yourself as “not good in math,” is a result of what was done to you in the name of teaching. You should be royally pissed off that it was done to you, but what’s the point of stewing in those juices now? You’re a parent and your children need you to move on! You can do it.

Start with thinking hard and maybe writing/blogging/talking to someone else about your own school-math experiences. Sharing these experiences with others very very often releases us from the old emotions, the fears, the shame, the self-doubts, that we’ve buried for years. Turns out you were NOT the only one feeling this way and turns out it wasn’t your fault at all, it was the teaching methods! They messed with you!

So – share and express and that’ll help you recover. You’ll still have a lot of negativity associated with math, it might not turn you into a math-lover, but letting go of the old baggage will free you for the next step.

Enjoy math with, for, and through your children. Yes, you get a second chance. Don’t let on to them that you’re anxious about it. Act like anything involving numbers, measurement, patterns, or anything else “math-like,” is just about the most fun and interesting thing you can imagine.

Relax into math. Many parents with a bit (or a lot) of math anxiety don’t even realize how they stiffen up and withdraw when their children innocently draw their attention to something math-related. Make a conscious effort to do the opposite. Smile warmly when your child asks a question that just might involve some math. Touch, hug, cuddle! Read math-related stories for fun, just like you read any other stories. There are lots of them, but you just might be avoiding them (maybe not even noticing as your eyes skim past any book that looks like it might contain some math).

Play a lot of games. Don’t say, “I don’t like games,” because that is very likely your math anxiety talking. There are lots of different kinds of games and saying, “I don’t like games” is a bit like saying, “I don’t like music.” Seriously? You don’t like any of it? Games are, by nature, fun. The point is to have a good time. So they are very conducive to experiencing some math in a friendly, warm, happy atmosphere. This is good for YOU (well, for your kids, too, but they aren’t the ones with the problem).

Use a little self-discipline. Recognize your own urge to avoid math and replace it with a conscious decision to have some fun with it, instead. You might need to work on being aware of the math that is everywhere, for a while (don’t point it out to the kids). This is part of your recovery and eventually you won’t need to think of math as a separate thing, it will just be part of the world, interconnected with everything else.

Again, I want to repeat that it seems to REALLY help people to share the stories of their own negative math experiences. If you’d like to share yours in the comments to this post, you’re welcome to do so.

Pam Sorooshian, mom of three grown-up homeschooled daughters is an economics and statistics college professor and runs a college theater box office in Southern California. She is active in unschooling discussions online, speaks at conferences, and currently is serving on the HSC Board of Directors.

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