A parent’s guide to helping your child cope with exam stress
By Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg
Exam season can see stress levels rise in your children and household. We understand that this can be a challenging time for everyone and is probably the most pressured your child will have ever felt.
There are ways you can help to manage exam stress and anxiety so that it doesn’t become overwhelming. While feeling some stress is normal as it can kick start the ‘fight or flight’ response and help your child to perform at their best, unrelenting stress can see their health and wellbeing deteriorate.
Priory Group’s Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg has provided some exam tips for parents that you can use to prevent their stress from escalating. By equipping them with stress-busting strategies, you will not only be helping your child during exams, but will also be giving them tools they can then use to deal with stresses they face later on in life.
Make time to talk
Start a conversation with your child when you are both free from distractions. Ask them how they feel. If they say they are angry, sad, worried or anxious, explain that it is normal to occasionally have such strong emotions, but that they shouldn’t have to deal with these feelings all the time. Let them know that that they can always turn to you for support.
If they feel that they are going to fail their exams or perform terribly, challenge these irrational thoughts and help them to recognise all the hard work they have put in so far.
You can also help to problem solve their concerns. For example, if they are worried that they won’t get their expected grade, identify the options that are available following on from this so that they are aware that they have alternatives and a future.
Help them recognise the symptoms of stress
Explain to them what symptoms of stress they should look out for. Are they finding it difficult to sleep and do they constantly feel tired? Are they not feeling hungry or are they finding it difficult to finish their meals? Does their heart rate constantly feel high? Have they lost interest in hobbies that they once enjoyed?
When your child is busy revising or preparing for exams, it is important that they check in with their body throughout the day to see if they are exhibiting any symptoms of stress. Get them to set an alarm on their phone, or to take time before meals to check. Has their leg been jiggling? Has their heart been beating faster than usual? Is their mind racing?
Let them know that it is not okay to feel like this constantly and that there are ways that they can reduce their exam stress symptoms, which you can teach them.
Show them strategies for dealing with exam stress
When your child feels that their stress is escalating and becoming distracting, get them to visualise their worries. Then get them to build a metaphorical wall between themselves and these concerns.
You can also teach them to put an expiration time on their stresses, where they can only worry for 10 minutes once or twice a day to prevent their anxiousness from becoming overwhelming.
You can also get them to sit with you and think of a relaxing place. Ask them to tell you what they see, smell, hear and feel. Encourage them to go back to this place once or twice a day, so that they can practice removing themselves from moments when they begin to feel too stressed.
Set times for revision breaks
Make your child aware that revising when they are exhausted is not an effective or healthy way to prepare for exams. It is important for them to feel that they have tried their best, but there are ways to do this without it negatively influencing their health and wellbeing.
Encourage them to take short, regular breaks. Suggest going for a walk or a drive together, book in time for daily exercise, and make sure they spend meal times away from their books to give them an opportunity to refresh and restart.
By helping your child manage their exam stress, this can prevent their anxieties from snowballing into something that impacts their health and wellbeing. If you feel that their stress isn’t improving you may need to get help from your GP, who will be able to give you the right advice and support you need.
Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg is a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist for The Priory Group.
You may also be interested in: The science behind exam stress or A top tutor's tips to help with exam stress.
Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash