Go Higher: Channel your angst into positive action

The big day is approaching fast. But, despite all the hopes and fears that A-level results day engenders, it will not ultimately dictate your path through life, the psychologist and counsellor Professor Malcolm Cross tells Sophie Morris
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The Independent Online

Results day is characterised by jubilation and exasperating disappointment in equal measure. As a parent of an A-level student, you cannot control the grades your child will wake up to on results day, but you can prepare psychologically for the day itself and beyond, and help the whole family to manage the process without resorting to tears and tantrums.

Here, Professor Malcolm Cross, a psychologist and counsellor at City University, debunks a few of the myths about results day and achievement, and shares some tricks of his trade to get you through the coming week.

Understand your anxiety

"People get anxious when they don't know what's going to happen next," says Cross. "This is normal, but they're really anxious about the things which are going to happen beyond results – the future consequences of the grades they get." Easier said than done, but if you can point this out to your child it might win them a few more hours of contented sleep in the run-up to results day.

Cross recommends talking through various scenarios to try and visualise realistic future outcomes if your child gets lower-than-expected grades. "It is difficult but not impossible to imagine into the future whether you have success on results day or not," he says.

Results day is not the first day of the rest of your life

"The step from school to university is overhyped," says Cross, meaning that the results you get, and the course you study and where, will not ultimately dictate your path through life. "People create an elaborate fantasy of their future, and everything is contingent on the image they have."

If you have a view of the next five or 10 years based solely on what and how you do at university, it is very unlikely you will end up following this to the letter. Many people, for example, study law but do not become lawyers, while others who don't study law at undergraduate level go on to pursue a career as a lawyer. If more parents and students realise this at the outset, they will be less worried about a disappointment on results day.

Parental expectations

Whether they admit it to their children or themselves or not, all parents harbour expectations for their offspring, which are often unreasonably high. When the child fails to deliver, it can be hard to hide your disappointment from them. "Parents need to find a way of reframing expectations into hopes," says Cross. "They are not in a position to pick the best path for their children anyway." If you secretly expect your averagely intelligent teenager to win a place at a top university, try considering whether ending up near the bottom of a bunch of high performers would actually be a good thing.

Plan for failure

There's no need to expect the worst, but making a plan of action in the event of a dropped grade or two will make results day far more manageable. Draw up some alternatives, such as resits, a year out, a university which offers the same course but requires lower grades, or a different course at your favourite university. Then make the time to visit some of these options in the run-up to results day. "Visiting beforehand means you can visualise your child being there, and so can they," advises Cross, "and it helps with anxiety."

If no suitable study options present themselves this year, Cross says this can still be turned into an opportunity – it all comes down to how you view it. Young people have a fairly undeveloped sense of time perspective, which means that delaying their studies for a year can appear a colossal waste of 12 months. In fact, employers demand so much more than a degree it can be a good opportunity to commit to some volunteering, gain work experience in the field which interests you (to check it really is for you before diving in), or save up for university so you can make more of your time there.

Flying the nest

"University is a big adjustment, and some people cope better than others," says Cross. "In order to feel safe, we fool ourselves that everything is predictable." The reality is that nearly every new student will experience some pangs of homesickness, if only for the routine of living at home and their old friends. You can help them prepare for this by making them aware of services such as counselling at university, and telling them to expect some feelings of bewilderment and insecurity. Parents will also experience some sense of loss. Cross says parents must not be disappointed if children don't come home every weekend.

Giving up

So your child did get the place they wanted? Unfortunately, your job doesn't end here. Around 7 per cent of university students drop out in their first year, but this doesn't make them failures.

"Identify why they are dropping out, and then move the conversation on to be more forward-looking," says Cross. "What have they learnt?"

There is little point in completing a three-year course if you realise within three weeks that it isn't for you. If you haven't started already, get to work on the practical planning which will assuage some of the anxiety of results day and starting university. But the most helpful realisation is that A-level grades, successful or otherwise, will not dictate the rest of your child's life.

Experts view

'The world seems to have turned a personal day of reckoning into a great communal drama'

Of course, it makes sense to plan, prepare and manage expectations. But even by feeling the need to outline such practical, step-by-step advice, aren't we in danger of blowing things out of proportion?

Of late, the annual rite of passage which is results day has somehow turned into "Results Day" when the TV news shows obligatory pictures of young people hyperventilating with emotion while adults stand by in their thousands to offer counselling, man telephones, hand over bribe money or share bitter tears.

Obviously A-level results mean a great deal to the students involved, but now the whole world seems to have muscled in on the act and turned a personal day of reckoning into some great, overblown, communal drama.

I have seen all three of my children through their results days, with varying degrees of success or failure. I know how low a young person can plunge when things don't turn out as expected, and how delighted they can be when they do. And I know, too, that as a parent you can't help but feel all these things along with them.

But I have also seen my children go on to get their degrees and search for jobs, and know for sure that while, to some extent, exam results matter, they don't matter as much as we think they do. It is terrific if a young person does well at A-level, but it certainly isn't the end of the world if they don't.

There are always opportunities out there for youngsters with resilience, confidence, flexibility and persistence.

The trouble is that, in focusing so ferociously on exam results and their immediate aftermath, we are in danger of losing sight of all other things that shape a young person's future.

All the A* grades in the world won't ultimately shore up the boy or girl who lacks the self-reliance or personal skills to make their way in the world, while the young person who knows how to pick themselves up after a set-back will never let something as minor as a set of disappointing exam results hold them back for long.

Remember, results day is exactly what it says and no more: one day. Afterwards, in all the ways that matter, life will almost certainly carry on much as before.