How to deal with exam stress: A Parent’s Guide
It is that time of year again, when students across the country put pen to paper and sit their GCSE and A-Level exams. Here at Spurgeons, we understand that this can be a time of stress, expectation and anxiety. It is important that children receive the right amount of support, to manage the pressure of exam season and the anxious moments that can come with it.
As a parent, this can be a worrying time for you, too. We all want our children to do well, and to achieve their personal best, but it’s important that we manage our expectations, so that we are not adding any further unnecessary pressure in the run-up to each of their exams.
So, let’s take a look together at how can we help the children in our care when it comes to coping with exam stress.
How does exam stress affect teenagers?
We all know, exams in any shape or form can be worrying. This is especially the case when there are higher stakes involved, and performance is being assessed or scrutinised. For children, who may have never experienced this kind of pressure and exam stress before, it can be even more overwhelming.
What’s more, exam stress has no time limit, and can be experienced in the days, weeks and months before sitting an important exam. As we know all too well, it can also be worrying while waiting for results.
Let’s explore some of the typical exam stress symptoms, that our children might show, if they’re feeling overwhelmed during exam season.
Exam Stress Symptoms
It is important to remember that exam stress, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. It helps us to become more aware and alert under exam conditions and can be a great motivational tool that encourages us to do our best when experiencing exam pressure.
When these symptoms become unmanageable, though they can begin to have a negative effect on our overall mental health and wellbeing. Especially when a child is approaching this kind of pressure for the first time.
So what exam stress symptoms are we looking for?
- Tearfulness and upset
- Increased sense of panic
- Feeling overwhelmed and difficulty with managing emotions.
- Headaches and Migraines
- Heart palpitations
- Racing heart
- Upset stomach
- Unable to sit still
- Tension and finding it difficult to relax
In the lead up to sitting an important exam, A-Level and GCSE stress can be overwhelming, but finding a balance when it comes to revision and preparation can help. Not having these strategies in place can cause a cycle of worry, so it’s important that you create a plan with your child, to make sure things don’t become too much.
The more stress a child is experiencing, the more likely it is that they will want to avoid that preparation period. Find a balance that works for you and your child, so they can feel well prepared. Be mindful though, that too much revision and studying can also have a negative effect on their mental health and wellbeing.
Why not have your children try our box breathing exercise, or all breathe together as a family? Take a moment to watch along with the animation and repeat as many times as needed to bring a sense of calm.
It is important to remember here too, that symptoms like these don’t always disappear as soon as the exam is finished. As parents, it is always good to check in and ask how our child is feeling after sitting the exam. This gives them the time they need to share their experiences, and anything they may be dwelling on.
This waiting period can be equally worrying. We’ve all stuck around after exams and checked answers with our friends, but this is something that can also cause unnecessary stress. This is because we are checking our answers against the answers of somebody else, who for whatever reason could have got the answer wrong themselves.
Reminding our child in these situations, that whatever anybody else says, we cannot go back and change our answers, is a good way to get their minds off it. There isn’t really a point to engaging with checking behaviours and the best practice is to put our answers out of our minds, as there is no action for us to take.
How to deal with exam stress
Here at Spurgeons, we understand that this can be a challenging period for children and families, but there are many things we can do to support our child when coping with exam stress. With the right interventions at the right time, we can make this experience more manageable for our kids.
Before, during and after the exam season, make sure your child is getting the right amount of sleep and the right nutrition where possible. This will enable them to be more awake and alert when approaching their exams.
What can I do to support my child through exam stress?
In this section, we look at a range of things that we can do as parents to support our child through this challenging exam season.
- Don’t put too much pressure on them. Your child is probably putting a lot of pressure on themselves already.
- Offer some supportive conversations and focus on the importance of them doing their best. This will be much more helpful than setting unrealistic targets for them.
- Reward their efforts rather than their results.
- Provide balanced meals regularly.
- Be emotionally available for conversations about their progress and their concerns.
- Make sure they get plenty of downtime and opportunities to detach from exams.
With so much information to remember across a variety of subjects, it is no wonder children can find it so difficult to get started when it comes to planning their revision schedule.
- You can support your child by making sure they are approaching their revision in manageable chunks.
- Sit down with them and write out a timetable that gives them a healthy balance of studying and free time.
- Focus on one subject at a time.
- Have a go at past exam papers, so they can feel comfortable with the task ahead of them.
- Plan plenty of opportunities for breaks and free time.
- Identify which days will be assigned to which subject.
- Make sure your child is drinking enough water.
- Pick a realistic time to spend on revision activities. Remember, if your child is revising of an evening during the week, they have already spent 6 hours in school studying for their exams.
- Personalise a revision plan to your child and consider their usual daily tasks.
- Encourage them to get outside and enjoy sports or exercise.
Most importantly, we should be there to help them when needed. If we are there to read through their revision with them and offer answers to any questions they may have, they are bound to feel more supported. It is more likely that they will communicate more openly about how they’re feeling, too.
Remember – everyone learns in different ways. It is best to find an approach that suits your child and encourage them to study in a way that is most helpful to them.
How to deal with exam stress in the moment
If your child has experienced a fair amount of pressure and anxiety in the run-up to their exams, then it is likely that while taking the exam they may feel overwhelmed. Prior to this happening, have a plan in place with your child that will enable them to calm themselves in the moment.
When feeling high levels of exam stress, your child may have moments where they find it difficult to recall information, otherwise known as going blank. Something we have all experienced ourselves at one time or another. There are, however, plenty of things you can do to support your child when overcoming these difficult moments.
Deep breathing – Practising deep breathing is a great way of slowing down the breath and looking at things from a different point of view.
Replace unhelpful thoughts – When a negative thought comes, offer a positive one back. That way, we can challenge the thought.
Debbie is an experienced counsellor and advocate for children and adult’s mental health: “Ground yourself in the moment, by finding three things that you can see, hear and smell. This acts as a way of distracting yourself in the moment. “
Waiting for results
Waiting for results can also be a tricky time for kids. Especially when they have been told that their results will have an impact upon their futures. Although, their final grades will be important, encourage them to know that results aren’t everything.
Ian Soars – Spurgeons CEO offers us some parental advice when it comes to changing the narrative on results.
“Firstly, whatever comes, celebrate. Not the results, but your child. Celebrate their kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness, courage, their XBOX prowess…anything. But let the narrative not be about how others have measured your child…. but about how you do. So, celebrate and celebrate big.
Secondly, (when you get them) if the results are not as good as you would like, react well, with calmness, reassurance and perhaps a few tales of when things did not go well for you at school and how you turned out OK, right? Oh and… be relentless with your reassurance and focus on the first point above.
But what if the results are great? Even then take care not to be focussed on the outcomes but the effort they put into it. Our Nation’s children have more to cope with than any other in history. We have to change the narrative for our kids away from what they achieve and pivot towards our pride in the person they are.
My youngest child is in the middle of their GCSEs, but their celebration dinner is set for mid-June, 2 months before the results come out. You know why? Because they are working as hard as they can with as much grace and courage as they can and that is what makes me proud as a Dad.”
What’s more, if your child is experiencing unmanageable levels of anxiety and A-level or GCSE stress, then you can always arrange a conversation with their teacher to see what else they can do to support them during this difficult time, too. Whether that be with taking care of themselves, or practical solutions to the things they are most worried about.
Here at Spurgeons, we deliver a range of services for children, young people and families around the UK.
Our team at Fegans strives to provide support for as many families and parents as possible, and offers flexible, needs-led, solution-focused programmes that are designed to support and mentor parents in managing family life and relationships.
All our parent support workers and volunteers are trained and able to work one-to-one with families or as a larger group.