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Helping your teenager with exam stress

Posted 1st May 2019

Child writing in notebook

Exam season is here. Taking exams can be a stressful thing for both you and your teenager to deal with. They may feel under pressure to perform well, be worrying about the future, and finding it hard to focus. You may be worrying for them and wondering how you can support them. The good news is there are some things you can do to help. In this article we’ll take a look at some of the causes of exam stress, and the ways in which it can affect young people studying for exams, and how you can support your child to prepare.

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body’s defences activate in an automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” (or freeze) reaction. The stress response actually evolved as the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, the stress response can save your life – it’s very helpful if you are being chased by a tiger! A certain amount of stress can also help you rise to meet more ordinary challenges. It can motivate you to study for an exam when you’d rather be on Instagram, and it can also give you a heightened sense of focus during the exam itself. But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, mood, productivity, relationships, and quality of life.

When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed up your reaction time, and enhance your focus—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

The problem is that our nervous systems aren’t very good at distinguishing between life threatening physical threats, and everyday emotional or minor threats. If you’re super stressed over an argument with a friend, something someone posted on social media, or an exam deadline, your body can react just as strongly as if you’re facing a true life-or-death situation. And over time that can lead to health problems. Chronic stress can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, and affect your cognitive and emotional functioning. Some of these affects, such as memory problems and difficulties with concentration, are directly counterproductive to exam preparation.

Because stress can gradually creep up on you over time, you get used to it and don’t notice how much it’s affecting you.  Cognitive symptoms of stress include memory problems, inability to concentrate, seeing only the negative, poor judgment, and anxious or racing thoughts. Stress can have emotional impacts such as depression or general unhappiness, anxiety and agitation, moodiness, irritability, or anger, and feeling overwhelmed. Because stress is a bodily reaction it can also lead to physical symptoms such as aches and pains, diarrhoea or constipation, nausea, dizziness, chest pain, and rapid heart rate. What you may notice as a parent are the behavioural signs they may be struggling, such as changes to eating habits (eating more or less), sleeping (too much or too little), withdrawing from others, procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, and losing interest in things they used to enjoy.

Anxieties about exams and future work is at the top of the list of what stresses young people for both boys and girls. However, people react to stress in a wide variety of ways, and some defensive responses to stress make it less visible on the surface. It may be easier to recognise stress in your somewhat over-conscientious and perfectionist adolescent, but less so if your child projects a sense of laid back calm or even indifference. It can be hard for parents and teachers to appreciate that the seeming bravado may mask very real underlying anxiety about “making the grade” and all the uncertainties of future adult life that can lead to disaffection and lack of motivation, and making choices based on immediate gratification.

Without appropriate support, advice and encouragement, a young person can go down pathways that seem more immediately attractive, such as mindless thrill-seeking activity, like substance misuse, or addictive online gaming, to avoid being in touch with anxieties about the bleak reality that he feels lies ahead.

Other factors

We live in a culture of distraction that can make sustained attention more difficult. Used in the right way, both the internet and social media can support revision efforts, but they can also lead to significant time lost in aimless interactions. If your adolescent is prone to this you may need to think of ways of agreeing some kinds of limits around this. Something like the pomodoro technique can be helpful. This involves setting a timer for periods (usually 25 minutes) of intense work focus, followed by short (5-10 minute) breaks. These can be built into blocks of study time.

As well as the stress of the exam itself and fears about failing, most significant exams also mark the end of one period or phase of life and transition into another. As such they also come loaded with feelings about endings and new beginnings. This is inherently unsettling.  For young people going through GCSEs it marks the end of a particular phase of school, which even after successful completion, will be followed by some amount of upheaval: changes to peer groupings – some children who may move on, and new arrivals, changes of teachers and patterns of work. For those doing A levels it marks the end of school life and the challenges of hopes and fears either about work life, or further education beyond the familiarity of school.  The looming prospect of these separations and losses can cause often unrecognised conflicting emotions, and can evoke feelings connected with earlier losses and endings. How these are negotiated can vary, for example either idealising or denigrating school.

The teenage brain

The adolescent brain is a “work in progress”. It is still in the process of developing. It has been adapted by evolution to function differently from the brain of a child or an adult. The limbic system, which drives emotions, intensifies at puberty, but the prefrontal cortex, which controls impulses, does not mature until the 20s. One of the features of the teen brain is its ability to change in response to the environment, or to put it another way its plasticity. On the plus side this allows teenagers to make rapid gains in socialisation and thinking, and in part explains why adolescence is a period of such change and development. But the downside is that there is an imbalance between the earlier maturation of the limbic systems driving emotions, which is supercharged in adolescence, and the later development of the networks of the pre-frontal cortex, which supports decision making and impulse control. This creates a certain vulnerability and accounts for some of the more troubling features of what we think of as “teen behaviour”.

These characteristics can intensify the way your teenage child reacts to the stresses imposed by exam preparation and exams themselves.

Thinking traps to avoid

Teens can be vulnerable and over-reactive to feeling criticised, and getting into thinking traps that sustain negative thinking, such as “fortune telling” (telling ourselves a negative predictive story), “mind reading” (attributing negative thoughts to others), and over-generalising statements.  Catastophising is another trap that involves thinking that the worst possible thing imaginable is about to happen: “I’m going to fail these exams and be expelled from school and disowned by my parents”. A variant of this involves negatively comparing oneself with peers: “Although I’m OK at exams, I’m nowhere near as good as named peer/everyone else”.

Exams are important, but it is unhelpful to over-value the significance of exams, so that they come to be seen as life defining, which just loads on additional pressure. It’s important to keep exams in perspective and help your child do the same. It seems obvious, but make it clear that you love and value your child for who they are, and not for what happens in an exam.

Managing meltdowns and regressions:

Depending on your young person’s temperament, and their situation, you may have to deal with stress induced “meltdowns” that can seem reminiscent of a much younger version of your child. A meltdown is, technically, the process of being completely disregulated by one’s feelings. The key principle in trying to help with this is simple in principle, but often difficult to follow in practice, namely to focus on helping the person to calm down. This is not the time to deliver a lecture on how they have brought in on themselves by not being more organised.

Don’t try to problem solve during heightened emotion. When the survival brain is activated by stress, your adolescent will find it difficult to activate the pre-frontal cortex needed for reflective thinking. It is better to accept that right at this moment she can’t hear you, can’t understand what you are saying, and is feeling out of control. It is better to wait until things cool down, when it may be more possible to think things through calmly.

Ways to be supportive

It’s important that your teen knows that you are there for them during stressful times. As well as this, supporting them to know their own limits, pace themselves, and be able to spot for themselves when they are becoming stressed, helps them build self-awareness skills for the future. Its good to talk often and early about signs and symptoms of stress, but from a perspective that views stress as something that can potentially be managed.

Exams season can create very real stresses for parents too. Parents can feel identified with their children and invested in their success. This is natural and not entirely a bad thing, but it can stir up complex feelings, and can sometimes be counter-productive. It is important to take responsibility for one’s own anxiety as a parent and what messages you might inadvertently communicate. If you are over-invested it can increase the sense of pressure, and may lead to unhelpful anxiety-based efforts to intervene. Feelings can be contagious, particularly in a family context, and it is easy both to “pass on” your own anxiety and to be reactive to your adolescent’s ways of managing stress. This can lead to cycles of escalation.

It is important to allow your adolescent to take responsibility for the process and to “own” it. You may find that helping them get organised for revision is an uphill struggle but it is important to note that each young person has their own way of revision that works best for them, and will approach their exam preparation in their own particular way, whether that might be listening to music whilst revising or studying with friends together in a group.

Some practical tips

If possible, make sure they have a comfortable place to work and study which is quiet.

If you do not have a suitable spot, make it easy for them to study elsewhere, like the library or at someone’s home. It may be better to go out and let them have the house to themselves at crucial times for an hour or so.

Accept that some people can revise better with music or the TV on in the background.

Establish a revision routine by re-arranging the family’s schedules and priorities that works for them.

Be lenient about chores and untidiness as much as you are able to.

Give them a break and understand lost tempers and moodiness.

Try to avoid nagging them as it can just cause them to lose focus.

Schedule small and frequent rewards for the effort they are putting in, but avoid bribes

Arrange some downtime so they can have a break from revision and exams.

Be calm, positive and reassuring and put the whole thing into perspective. Too much fear is counterproductive rather than motivating.

Tips on preparing for the exams

Arriving at the exam in the right state of mind, as far as possible, is probably more helpful than last minute cramming

Help them with plenty of planning and organisation for the day

Try to get them to go to bed early so they are able to have a restful sleep. In the morning, arrange for them to have a healthy and nutritious breakfast to help them focus and concentrate.

Go through a checklist to make sure they have everything they need. Stress impacts on memory so it is easy to forget specific things needed for an exam.

Give your child lots of encouragement so they feel more positive before they leave. Let them know how proud you are of them regardless of how they think they do.

All children are different in terms of how they feel about exams and how they manage stress.  While some children might need a bit of prompting to take exams at all seriously, for many they are already well aware of this and might need your help instead to recognize that their whole future wellbeing does not rest on what happens in the next couple of hours in an exam room and there will be a pathway open to them no matter what happens in their exams.