How To Handle Exam Stress

How to handle exam stress – from a parent’s perspective

We are all aware of how much pressure our children are being put through with increased testing and assessing at school and often at ever younger ages. Recent studies have also shown that young people are ever more anxious about big societal issues such as housing, employment and the environment and how these may affect them as they grow up. 

With such pressure being exerted on young people what can parents do to guide their children through this difficult time and support them?  Here are some things to think about. 

  1. Your main role as a parent is to solidly stand by your child during this emotionally turbulent time and contain and hold their feelings
  2. Remember that your child will respond to stress in different ways, some withdraw but others pick a fight and are almost unbearable to live with. It is harder to comfort some and get alongside them but they will need you nevertheless.
  3. Try and remain calm even when your child throws all his emotional turmoil your way. Children often manage their stress by projecting it – making the people closest feel their feelings for them, to rid themselves of the unbearable feelings. Receive it, hold it and manage it for them. Deep breaths! 
  4. Exams put your child into a context of feeling evaluated, judged and he/she may feel very criticised and fear not being good enough. Try and boost them by letting them know you love them unconditionally. They may also judge you more during this time or make you feel inadequate. I spoke to one parent who said that only during exam time she could not apparently get her son’s lunch right, he would always complain and make her feel not good enough.  When she understood it as a communication of how he felt during exams she felt able to support him better. 
  5. Show them you care by cooking something special or make time to do things they love. If offered, they may really enjoy doing things they used to like, allow them to regress emotionally.   I had one patient whose 8 year old regressed and made his way into the parental bed at night. Remember this is a phase that won’t last. 
  6. Ensure you have family time together and maybe combine it with some exercise, like walking or cycling to help with your young persons sleep. 
  7. One family I worked with made a detailed timetable of exams and kept it on the fridge until the end of exams.  This made everyone feel they were ‘in it’ together and it became a shared, family challenge rather than just a hard time for one child on their own. 
  8. Keep an eye on your child’s social media/computer/phone use. Feeling anxious and worried your child may try to escape into that world and overuse it. Make sure they are supported and make sure they don’t stay up too late doing this. Good sleep is vital. 
  9. Keep talking. Make time to ask how your child is, how they are feeling. Remember they are probably more likely to talk when walking the dog than when cornered out of the blue. 
  10. Be aware of your own stress levels surrounding your child’s exams. Are you very anxious about them yourself? You will struggle to reassure your child if you yourself think that this exam will decide your child’s entire future. 
  11. Think back to the time you did exams. What was helpful and not helpful for you? What were your parents like?  Talk it through with your partner and share your experiences and how you coped. 
  12. Involve your child, talk about how the next few weeks will be stressful and ask how you can best get through it together.