Exam time is not usually associated with feelings of calm and zen. More realistically families find themselves beset by a general feeling of edginess as the mood of the home changes with the onset of exams. Parents feel like they are flailing in how best to support their teens through this time. Here are some thoughts on how we can try and reduce the stress by making things more conducive for healthy exam experiences.

Parents and control

We learn quickly on the parental journey that no matter how much we want to and no matter how much we try, we cannot completely control our children’s behaviour. Barring medical intervention, we cannot force our children to eat or sleep and similarly we cannot force them to study, understand or retain information. That’s an important thing to note as it helps us manage our role and our frustrations in the process. We should support, influence and encourage rather than try to control.

Parents and their pasts

Our own experience with exams and academics can have a weighty influence on how we meet our teenagers in their testing moments. Whether we struggled, aced, or averaged our way through our own exam past, that remains OUR experience. We may share similarities with our kids, but they are not cut and paste versions of ourselves or our polar opposites. Making sense of our relationship with academics, aids us in not projecting things where they don’t belong. Do we place extreme pressure on results overtly or subtly? Do we make our kids feel that love is conditional upon results? Are we comparing their results to others? Do we imply that a bad exam is tantamount to failure in life? Of course, there are consequences based on exam results but we need to remember that this is a part of their lives and not the whole of them. Being crushed by anxiety around the experience will have far reaching consequences beyond the actual results. Remember we have done our exam time. I often hear parents saying, “We have exams at the moment.” Whilst moods may plummet and tensions may rise, these are not our exams. Teens need room to carve their own spaces in the world.

What can we do to support our teenagers?

Talk

Yip I know most teens aren’t gung -ho about having a fat chat about what’s happening, what they are feeling and what their plans are. But that doesn’t mean we should switch off communicating with your kids. It may mean being more thoughtful about how we go about talking to them. Avoid the lecture. Once we start lecturing (which often results from our own anxiety), they generally feel bombarded and switch off to what we are saying. We need to be respectful and open to hearing from them and stepping in only when it is necessary. Be empathic before trying to fix things.
Things that can be helpful to say both in the exam build up and during exams?
“ I know it drives you nuts when I nag you, so tell me what your plans are and how much time you are needing to work.”
“Are you needing any help?”
“I noticed that you were struggling with maths – would it be helpful to get a tutor or what were you thinking?”
“Are you feeling stressed about the exams? You know its normal to feel worried about exams.”
“ Is there anything specific you need from me during exams.”
“I know exam time isn’t a great time for you.”

Encourage healthy behaviours

As adults we know only too well the pull of unhealthy coping mechanisms (the extra gulp of red wine, the sedentary laze on the couch , endless scrolling through a social media feed, you get the picture.) But research, common sense and experience constantly tell us that doing things that are healthy will help us cope better with stress. Stressors are very much part of life. Whilst we may want to remove stressors, the reality is that we cannot and shouldn’t always do that. It is more valuable to learn how to cope and manage ourselves well so that we can meet the stressors in life without them breaking us. Exams add pressure so it is imperative that we don’t skimp on the things that serve us. As parents, we should role model this and ensure that our teens take this on board too. Eating and sleeping well, mediating, breathing, practicing mindfulness, moving, dancing and exercising are all beneficial in managing stress. Due to the extra time demands required of studying, teens often skimp on the good stuff when they are really needing it most of all. We need to keep this on their radar.

Be thoughtful and kind

Maintaining boundaries and consistency during exam times can help teens feel contained. It is also important to retain some flexibility during this time. Maybe letting up a little on certain things like chores and managing expectations. Our kids need us to hold them in mind, they do not need to be micromanaged and over parented. We are in our second year of Covid which has been brutal in so many ways and continues to affect our teens. It has been a hard time, with constant adjustments, losses and restrictions. Maybe provide a little treat from time to time, a surprise snack or favourite thing. This is not as a reward for doing well but just as a treat for treats sake in a challenging time.
Step in if you think your child’s anxiety feels out of control. Watch for major sleep, eating and behavioural changes and mostly let them know that they are not alone and that you are there for them and support is always available.

The after party

When exams are done and dusted, let’s not kid, nobody is gagging for a reflective feedback session. The relief is often huge and the freedom from the books is a big draw. But it can be so helpful to think about what worked and what didn’t work well both from our teen’s perspective but also from our own.
Life is full of tests in various shapes and forms. Reflecting and learning from our experiences can always stand us in good stead going forward.