Exam stress: how to help children cope with GCSEs and A-levels | Exams
Look out for signs of stress
“I think the first thing is about being aware,” says Dr Dan O’Hare, the vice-chair of the British Psychological Society’s division of education and child psychology. “Are they more irritable than usual? If they play Fortnite, have they suddenly lost interest in it or are they playing way more than they should be? Have they gone off their food, are they complaining of physical symptoms, like headaches and stomach aches more regularly than they might do?”
Talk about anxiety
“Remind your child that it’s perfectly normal to feel worried or stressed about their exams,” says Cecilia Corbetta, the parenting lead at the Place2Be mental health charity. “Talk openly about how you cope with your own stressful situations, so your child has a positive role model for managing their emotions and time.”
O’Hare stresses the importance of the basics – food, exercise, friends and downtime. Then help them create a plan to prepare for their exams. “When are those exams? How do we create a sustainable revision timetable? I think sometimes young people get generic advice – ‘do some revision’. Does that mean six hours at the same textbook, or does it actually mean 30 minutes, a five-minute break, then we go out for a walk? Helping them plan and create that structure for those small wins, I think is really key.”
Don’t make them feel worse
O’Hare says a lot of motivation around exams is fear-based – warnings that if you don’t do well, you won’t be able to go to university. “That sort of narrative is really stressful for children,” he says, and should be avoided. “Be reassuring, positive, and help put things into perspective,” says Corbetta. “Remind them that there is more to life than their grades, and their results don’t define who they are.”
Be available to listen and flexible to their needs
“Sometimes your child may not want to talk, and it’s important we don’t force them to have a conversation they don’t want to have. Make yourself available but don’t pressure them to talk,” says Corbetta. Listen to their needs, says O’Hare. “Parents and carers might want to get the young person out of the house for all the best reasons. But if it becomes so rigid that it starts contributing to the stress, rather than alleviating it, as adults we need to be flexible.”
Unwinding after exams
Help them to relax so they don’t dwell on things they could have done better. Place2Be suggests watching a film or enjoying a favourite meal together, before starting revision for the next test.
If you are concerned about your child or they won’t talk to you, encourage them to talk to someone at school or a charity such as ChildLine, says Place2Be. O’Hare says worried parents can also approach their child’s school via their form tutor, head of year or pastoral lead. “These are people in the school system who are really aware of how to support children who are going through these things.” If you’re worried about a child who may be having panic attacks, for example, contact your GP.