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How to Deal with Exam Stress

A dos and don’ts list for helping your child cope with the tremendous pressure of exams
I thought that any plans I had for my life had now been compromised and I had disappointed my family and myself

It’s an almost universal problem amongst children and teenagers – whether it’s an entrance exam, SATs, coursework deadlines or GCSEs, young people are under tremendous and increasing pressure to perform from teachers, parents, exam boards and themselves. 

Whilst I appreciate that stress, to an extent, can act as a catalyst for performance, it’s very easy to forget how much weight is put on exams in the school environment.

From a 15-year-old’s perspective, particular for those attending private schools, these exams are essentially the sole measure of your achievement and worth in the school system. I can clearly remember being beside myself with disappointment at the result of my French GCSE, which I had taken a year early. I’d got an A grade, rather than the A* I was predicted, and it’s not much an exaggeration to say that I thought that any plans I had for my life had now been compromised and I had disappointed my family and myself. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but at a young age it’s easy to become consumed by the importance of end-of-year assessments.

It’s no wonder then that academic stress has been cited as the main contributor to depression and self-harm among young people, according to findings by YouGov and mental health charity MindFull.

Pressure to succeed and an inability in schools to encourage students to see the “bigger picture” outside of the academic timetable is creating an environment which is detrimental to young people’s mental health.

So what can be done to help?

Of course, the usual suspects which benefit almost every area of an individual’s physical and mental health should be encouraged at all times: eating regular, nutrient-rich meals and avoiding processed or junk food as much as possible; getting regular exercise; avoiding alcohol or other drugs. But aside from the obvious steps your child can take to stay healthy, what can you as a parent do to help them deal with the strain of exams and deadlines whilst still encouraging their success? I’ve compiled a dos and don’ts list which I hope can be of some assistance.

DO ask them how they’re feeling

This seems obvious but it’s not always clear to a child or teenager that they can admit that they’re feeling anxious. Young people, particularly boys, can feel embarrassed to talk about what’s troubling them, or can feel like they’re a burden if they admit that academic stress is troubling them. Encourage your child to talk about how they’re coping with exams and if they are having difficulty, let them know that it’s normal and they shouldn’t feel ashamed.

DON’T overload their schedule

Extracurricular activities are crucial in making sure your child has a well-balanced life but if piano lessons, football training, Duke of Edinburgh awards and school journal writing are leaving your son or daughter with no time for themselves, then consider which activities are truly beneficial in exam season.

DO put things into perspective

If your child is panicking or getting upset over their results, remind them that exams are not the end of the world and even if they don’t get the grades they’re hoping for, it doesn’t mean that their lives are over and they have to throw their aspirations on the scrapheap. Again, this seems obvious from an adult perspective but it’s not always so clear from within the high-pressure school environment.

DON’T add to the burden

If your child is at all stressed about their performance, then they don’t need to be reminded of what’s expected of them: if they’re worried, then they’re clearly taking it seriously. Schools and teachers place massive emphasis on exam results because they are also measured on their students’ success. When considered alongside the need to prove yourself that all young people feel amongst their peer group, this means that they most likely don’t need additional pressure from their family. Be a source of support and encouragement, not a further reminder of how important these tests are.

DO treat them like an adult

It’s easy to dismiss anxiety or sadness in a young person’s life as just teen angst, but your child will benefit greatly from having their worries taken seriously rather than just described as a symptom of being young. Offer them real-world advice and solutions and avoid the temptation to say “you don’t understand” or “you’re just too young”. Your relationship with your son and daughter will benefit as a result and so will their mindset and attitude to school stress.

I hope this article has been of some help. If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health or wellbeing, you can call YoungMinds on 0808 802 5544

- Jack Rayner


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