A-Level results: How to support a child who is worried about failure

This year’s exams were cancelled because of the pandemic.

Liz Connor
Friday 06 August 2021 13:45 BST
Results Day is fast approaching (Alamy/PA)
Results Day is fast approaching (Alamy/PA)

The anxious wait is on for students in the UK as they prepare to receive either their A-level or Scottish Higher results on 10 August.

Due to the pandemic, grades have been determined by teachers’ estimates this year – based on a mixture of coursework and mock exams – rather than by traditional exam results.

Waiting for results is understandably a nerve-racking experience for young people, but arguably more so this year, with exam changes adding an extra layer of fear and uncertainty.

As a parent, there are things you can do to help your teen relax, unwind and take the stress in their stride over the next few days. We asked an expert to explain…

How can I support my results-anxious child?

“It’s really important that parents understand what results day anxiety is and why it occurs,” says Dr Lynne Green, chief clinical officer at Kooth (koothplc.com).

Anxiety is an unpleasant emotional state, characterised by subjective feelings of tension, trepidation and worry triggered by the body’s autonomic nervous system,” she explains. “In simpler terms, it is our brain’s way of protecting us from things or situations that it interprets as threatening or dangerous.”

Green says that anxiety is totally normal, and it’s been important to our survival as a species, as historically, it has helped us to fight, run away or freeze in response to threats to our existence.

“When we experience something we perceive as a threat, the fight or flight response is activated, causing a physiological reaction, which includes increased heart rate, sweating and dry mouth, to enable us to deal with the threat.

“However, in this day and age, we don’t have to deal with the challenges of dangerous animals or weather conditions that are a threat to our existence,” she continues. “Instead, we have to deal with stressors like exam results.”

The problem, Green explains, is that our brain works on what is called a ‘better safe than sorry’ principle, meaning that it struggles to differentiate between what is a real threat to our life and what is a perceived or subjective threat.

“The way education is currently structured in the UK means that children have to undertake examinations at various times in their school life and the results of these tests or assessments can form the basis of how they perceive themselves, their hopes and fears,” says Green. “Based on this assertion, it’s easy to understand why the mind of a young person perceives results day as a threat. It’s essentially a fear of failure.”

What can you do to keep your child calm ahead of the results?

The first thing that parents need to do is to try to identify the signs of difficulties with results day anxiety as early as they can, says Green. These include trouble sleeping, low attention span, being fatigued and restless, excessive worry about different things, low-self confidence and irritability.

“Normalise these feelings,” stresses Green. “It can be useful for children or young people know that it is OK to feel anxious as it is part of being human.

“Anxiety, though normal, becomes a problem for us when it persists and becomes so intense that it starts to affect our daily functioning. For this reason, it’s helpful for young people to learn techniques that help them manage their anxiety over the next few days.

“Some of these strategies include breathing and meditation techniques to slow their heart rate down, talking to them about their thoughts and fears and helping them manage their fears of failure.

“Distraction techniques such as listening music, mindful drawing, arts and crafts and games can also help to pass the anxious wait for results. If they like writing, introduce them to journaling and invite them to write down their thoughts and feelings.”


Green adds that you should also encourage them to exercise and stay active this weekend, so they can reap the benefits of mood-boosting endorphins.

“Most importantly, reassure them that whatever the outcome, they will be OK, but speak to your GP if worry is starting to affect their day-to-day life.”

What should you do if the results do not go according to plan?

“I’d really recommend parents openly discuss the emotions associated with things not going according to plan and normalise the upset,” says Green.

“Regardless of the result, let your child know how proud you are of them, that it is not the end of the world and that despite the pain, things will be OK.

“It might also be helpful to suggest possible options and solutions they could take as their next steps, to stop them from feeling overwhelmed. Above all, let them know that you are there if they need to talk through things.”

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