9 actually useful things you can do to support teens this exam season

Parenting and exam experts share the best ways to support teens during the stressful exam period. By Lisa Salmon.

Lisa Salmon
Monday 15 May 2023 14:28 BST
Exam season is upon us (Alamy/PA)
Exam season is upon us (Alamy/PA)

Exam season is underway, and many teenagers might be feeling overwhelmed about the important tests they’re facing over the next few months.

“Sitting exams is often one of the most overwhelming and high pressure experiences teens face, and students often put immense pressure on themselves,” says Lara McIvor, a revision expert at Save My Exams. “For parents with children taking exams, it can be difficult to know how best to support their child without being too involved or under-supportive.

“As parents and teachers, it should be our mission to ensure students have access to clear support systems, coping mechanisms and study techniques over these challenging few months, and we should all be better educated in the warning signs of stress in teens.”

And Matt Buttery, CEO of the Triple P Positive Parenting Programme, adds: “This can be a stressful time, but the good news is that parents can support young people and help remove some of the pressure around exam season. By setting a positive example and encouraging them, you can help ensure they remain happy and healthy, as well as reach their full academic potential.”

So what can parents and carers do to actually make the whole exam experience better for teens?

1. Encourage them to chat with you

Encourage open communication, and if your teen seems stressed, ask if they’d like to talk through revision together, or more broadly discuss their concerns, suggests Buttery.

“It’s important your child knows you’re there for them if they need you,” he stresses.

2. Set up a quiet study area

Ensuring your child has an optimum place to study without distractions is vital to their success, McIvor says.

“Often concentration can wane, so making sure there are limited external distractions – such as loud music or TV – will allow for the best results and prepare them for their silent exams,” she says.

3. Don’t just rush to make them feel better

It’s vital to acknowledge what teenagers are feeling, rather than just trying to make it go away, stresses psychologist Dr Audrey Tang.

“One of the most important things anyone can do is validate their right to feel as they do,” she explains. “We’re not very good at sitting with anxiety and often rush to try and make it go away or to feel better, and this can lead us to quick fixes which can include unhealthy behaviour choices such as not bothering to try, often led by unhealthy thoughts like ‘If I don’t try, I can’t fail’.”

4. Help teenagers unpack their feelings

Encourage teens to analyse or unpack how they’re feeling about their exams and revision, advises Tang. “If we take a moment to respect our feelings, and try to unpack exactly what we’re worrying about, we may be able to work out what we need to do next,” she explains.

For example, is your teen’s anxiety caused by them not understanding some things, and if it is, which specific bits are causing the problem? Or is it linked to knowing their parents are stressed and not wanting to add to it, and if that’s the case, are other services available? “When we begin to unpack our feelings, rather than suppress or deny them, we have a better idea of what action is going to help us the most,” Tang explains.

5. Help with visual prompts

Creating an ongoing learning environment throughout the exam period is key, says McIvor. She suggests sticking notes with key quotes, equations, etc on them around the house in places where your child can always see them.

“This can be really useful for some students as it allows for constant exposure to materials,” she explains.

6. Avoid ‘toxic positivity’

If a teenager says things like, ‘I’m so stupid’, or ‘I’m rubbish at everything’, it’s natural for parents to tell them they’re brilliant, observes Tang.

“Unfortunately, this has the effect of not validating those emotions, and the opportunity to understand what they’re trying to say is lost,” she explains. “A better way to navigate that discussion would be to acknowledge the feeling with something like ‘I’m really sorry you’re feeling that way’, and asking for more information.”

7. Be a good role model

Role modelling healthy ways to manage your own anxiety is hugely important, stresses Tang. “Why would you expect a young adult to listen to you if you aren’t showing in your own practice that what you’re suggesting works?” she asks.

And Buttery advises parents to lead by example by staying positive and calm when talking about exams. “Avoid using phrases such as, ‘You must be nervous’,” he says, “As you may risk accidentally making an otherwise calm child more stressed. Children learn a great deal about how to manage their behaviour and deal with difficult situations from their parents. By demonstrating calm and resilient behaviour, parents can have a positive influence on their children’s ability to cope with adversity.”

8. Try stressbusting techniques together

Tang suggests practising self-care or stressbusting techniques together, such as affirmations with deep breathing.

One technique, she says, is to get your child to note down everything they need to do and its relative importance on a pie chart, where the size of the slice shows the importance of the activity. Then ask them to draw on a scale of zero in the centre, to 10 on the outside, where they are in each segment.

“This gives them a visual representation of what they need to do, and where they are, as well as an indication of the areas they’re neglecting, and how important those areas are,” she says. “By having everything on one pie chart, it might feel a lot more manageable.”

9. Maintain the family routine

Ensuring family dinners and other rituals remain part of daily life can help teenagers cope with exam stress, as routine is predictable and reassuring at a time of pressure and uncertainty.

Maintaining structure can also help your child plan their downtime, stresses Buttery, who adds: “It’s important to ensure they’re taking time to relax and unwind, whether by watching their favourite TV show, playing a game, or hanging out with friends.”

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