Eating Paper and Test Anxiety

By Catherine Pearlman

February 17, 2018 5 min read

Dear Family Coach: My 7-year-old son is always ripping the pages off of books and eating them. All the corners are gone and eaten. I have no idea what to do about this, or if I should even do anything about this. Is this normal or a problem? — Not So Sure

Dear Not So Sure: Well, it probably isn't a problem, but it's worth checking out. Eating nonfood items is a symptom of a disorder called Pica. One of the most common nonfood items ingested is paper. It's so common is has a name: Xylophagia. There are a variety of reasons people do it. Your son may have obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Anxiety could be the culprit, as could simple boredom. It's also possible that paper eating might be just tip of the iceberg. There are numerous serious medical concerns when people ingest paper, including intestinal obstruction, perforation and infections. So it's important to double-check that this issue isn't more serious.

Start by observing your son. Is he doing the eating in private, or does it happen when others are around? Does eating paper seem to soothe your son in any way, or is it just a mindless activity? Talk to your son about his book eating as well. Why does he say he does it? Try to quantify how much he is eating in a day. If he is mindlessly munching on a few corners here and there, I wouldn't worry too much about it. If, however, he is consuming a lot, doing it in private and suffering from anxiety or obsessive-compulsive tendencies, then seek professional help for an evaluation of this problem.

Dear Family Coach: My daughter is in eighth grade, and her test anxiety is increasing every year. She studies and should do well on her texts, but inevitably, her grades come back showing a disparity of what she knows and how she scores. Due to her autism diagnosis, she is entitled to receive special testing accommodations, but she refuses to use them. She's too embarrassed. How can I help her anxiety and improve her functioning during tests? — Tested Mom

Dear Mom: Your daughter's test anxiety is being compounded by her unwillingness to use the accommodations for which she is entitled. The solution here is to address both issues.

There are several reasons kids suffer from intense anxiety before and during exams, and knowing the reasons will help solve the problem. Sometimes they are unprepared (although this doesn't seem to be your daughter's case) and that stresses them out. Sometimes kids fear failure or intense pressure to succeed. This makes any mistake seem disproportionally big and scary. Lastly, for kids who like to control their environment, testing may make them feel very out of control.

Try to assess the root of your daughter's anxiety and address it directly. Help your daughter learn to identify when she is feeling anxious, and work on calming practices that she can implement when needed. She may be studying plenty, but that doesn't mean she is studying correctly. A tutor or some time studying with her teacher might help her prepare more efficiently. Proper study habits could make her feel more in control and less powerless when she sees the test. Lastly, it is likely vital for your daughter to use her accommodations. Distraction, pressure from others finishing early, inattention and stress over the timer might all be contributing to her performance. If she continues to be resistant, talk to the school about how to minimize the embarrassment. It may have just the solution your daughter is willing to use.

Dr. Catherine Pearlman is the author of "Ignore It! How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction." To write to Dr. Pearlman, send her an email at [email protected] To find out more about Dr. Catherine Pearlman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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