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How to help your teenager with exam stress

Posted 19th April 2022

Exam season is here. Taking exams can be stressful both for you and your teenager to deal with. Some will feel under intense pressure to perform well (even if you’ve reassured them countless times that they just have to do their best), they might be worrying about the future and feeling like their whole life comes down to this one set of exams.  For some students this means hours of study, guilt about taking time out to see friends or do other activities, and weeks or months of revision.  There can be a sense that every single minute of study could be the minute that makes a difference between success and failure.   Others may deal with stress by steering well away from any revision, as the amount of things they are expected to know can feel too much. 

As a parent, you may also be worrying for your child and wondering how you can support them. Do you put pressure on your reluctant teen to study a bit more?  Insist your over-studious child takes a break even though they very much don’t want to?  Or let them get on with it?

Stress:

One thing that can help you and your child is having a basic understanding of what stress is and what’s going on in the body and mind. 

Stress is the body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When humans sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body’s defences kick in and activate a process known as the “fight-or-flight” (or freeze) reaction. This response evolved as the body’s way of protecting us from danger. When working properly, it helps us 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 humans feel threatened, our nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Our heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and our senses become sharper. These physical changes increase strength and stamina, speed up reaction times, and enhance focus—preparing us to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

The problem is that our nervous systems aren’t at all 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 as if you’re facing a true life-or-death situation.  Someone under stress may struggle to focus, feel the need to get away from the stress trigger (flight), feel anxiety, have a racing heart or find that no matter how hard they study they have not retained the information.  Other side effects can include nausea, dizziness and bowel issues.  Stress can affect the appetite (increasing it or decreasing it).   Someone under stress may feel irritable or angry, and it might feel like even the smallest extra demand is overwhelming.  All of these effects of stress are exactly what you don’t want if you are trying to prepare for exams.

So the signs that you might notice as a parent that will show you your child is under intense stress are very varied.  It can be obvious when you have an over-conscientious child who is talking about anxiety and not sleeping.  But you might equally have an angry child who cannot seem to manage even the basic tasks of life at the moment, such as washing up or making the bed.  Or you might have a child who is avoiding activities they usually enjoy, not hanging out with friends any more or conversely is never at home.  If you have noticed any changes in your child’s usual behaviours around exam time, then it’s worth thinking about whether these might be signs of stress. 

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.  This means that your teenager literally isn’t fully wired up yet, and so under stress will have less ability to cope than most adults would have.  They are more likely to get overwhelmed, whether this manifests as anger, intense anxiety / withdrawal or inability to function.  They are not doing this on purpose, and they are going to need your own ability to stay calm and focus to help them get through this. 

So what can help?

Everyone responds differently to stress and everyone needs different ways to manage it.  But some ideas to support your child might include:

  • For an over-anxious young person, break up study into small manageable chunks, with “down time” in between when there’s no guilt for not studying
  • For a young person who is struggling to face revision at all, start by thinking about what they can manage and build up from there, even if to start with it’s only five minutes.  You can work on increasing this once it feels safe. 
  • Reassure your child that their whole life is not dependent on this set of exams, there are always other pathways.  Communicate a “let’s wait and see” approach to exam results, you will be proud of them no matter what
  • There are helpful apps like “Headspace” that can assist with breathing techniques to help bring stress levels down, they can also help with sleep.  For other young people listening to an audiobook at night can help calm the body and mind enough to allow sleep
  • Try to take any challenging behaviour in your stride; your child may well get angry with you whatever you suggest, this is because the exams may well be the most stressful thing they have had to face and they may feel under attack.  This moment will pass once exams are over. 
  • Bear in mind that for many young people exams are also an important transition point.  Support your child with what this means for them: a move to sixth form or uni?  A first job?  Be there to listen to your child’s anxieties and hopes. 
  • Try to contain your own stress and anxiety about the exams.  Dealing with this by micromanaging your child’s life is not going to help them or you. 
  • Accept that not everyone revises in the same way, and techniques that work for you may not work for your child.  Offer your wisdom, but accept that it won’t always be welcome.  For example, some people need the TV or radio on in the background to study, for others this would make studying impossible. 
  • Rearrange usual priorities around the times of day when your teenager is most able to focus.  Maybe other priorities can drop for a while, e.g. usual chores

And remember.  The most important factor in determining how your child will do on the day is whether or not they can go into the exam relaxed and confident.  Ask your child what would help them to relax – it’s unlikely to be last minute cramming.