If a parent's heart beats a little faster as the time comes to calculate splitting a dinner bill and tip with friends or estimate the grocery bill in the cashier's line, that anxiety can be passed down to children. But fear not, psychologists say.

When parents showed feelings of fear, apprehension or nervousness around every day calculations or formal problems when helping their children in Grade 1 and Grade 2 with addition and subtraction homework, children learned less math and had more math anxiety by the end of the school year, researchers reported in the journal Psychological Science.

"The fact that it was the parents who tended to help a lot with homework we found quite surprising," study author Erin Maloney, a Canadian postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago's psychology department said from Ottawa.

"It's not just a genetic connection, but there's also some socialization that's going on as well that can affect the child's anxiety."

In general, Maloney said it's valuable for parents to help with homework. But those who are anxious about math and express their fears should be aware it can backfire.  

Erin Maloney

Erin Maloney overcame her own anxiety about math during graduate school. (CBC)

There is a better approach: attitude is everything.

Instead of saying, "Math is something you get or don't" or endorsing stereotypes about girls not being as strong at math, Maloney suggests parents say things like, "If you work really hard, you'll get it" or "we'll figure this out.'"

Suggestions for anxious parents include:

  • Write about your feelings and anxiety before you do a math test or before you help a child with math homework. Research suggests those who write about how they feel about an upcoming test about five minutes beforehand perform better on subsequent math tests than if they hadn't written about the fears.
  • Sit back and try to determine how bad it will really be if you don't do well on a test or calculate a tip at a restaurant with friends, because you'll likely realize it's not that big a deal. It's a better approach than getting into a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and ruminations about worst-case scenarios if things go poorly.
  • Talk about numbers and math at home starting with children at toddler age.
  • Use opportunities such as doubling or tripling a recipe to show children how you use math successfully in everyday life.

Maloney said she was nervous about math growing up, but she overcame the anxiety during her graduate studies at the University of Waterloo, where she completed courses in statistics and came to love it.