1. Make space to listen
The best thing you can do is to make sure they know you’ll be there for them if you want to talk — and that you’re on their side. Take time to ask about any specific worries they have. Let them vent their frustration if they are struggling with revision or want to rant about an exam that didn’t go as they had hoped. Sometimes the greatest gift you can give is your undivided attention.
2. Remember their fear of disappointing you
There may be times when you need to encourage a child to revise, but too much pressure can backfire. Mums and dads I work with are often surprised when they find that their son or daughter is worried about whether they will let their parents down. Even teenagers who seem defiant or rebellious may be hiding a deep fear of not living up to their family’s expectations.
Making sure they know you will be proud of them no matter how they do will help to motivate them.
3. Remind them there are many paths to success
Exams are important, and parents naturally want their children to do well. But we all know people who didn’t do well at school, but have gone on to have successful and happy lives.
Many teens feel stressed because they feel that their entire future depends on this one chance at getting their grades. If your teen is paralysed by a fear of failure, it can help to talk through their worries to put them into perspective.
4. Teen brains are different
Some teens can be overwhelmed by anxiety or suffer panic attacks when exams loom. It can seem like they are over-reacting, but it’s worth bearing in mind that teenage brains are not fully developed until they reach their mid-20s.
The stress of exams often triggers their fight-or-flight response: if a teen is having a severe panic attack, it’s a sign that they’ve gone into survival mode and they may not be able to take on board any reassurance you offer.
Anxiety is contagious so the key is to stay centred: this will help them to relax and you can take some time to talk things through.
5. Help them to think differently
When young people start to worry, it’s very easy for them to get caught up in the negative chatter in their head. Soon they are trapped in a spiral of self-critical thoughts — none of which are necessarily helpful or true. Common examples include:
“I’m never going to get this.”
“I’m going to fail.”
“Everyone else is better than me.”
“I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t get A*’s.”
“I shouldn’t be this stressed.”
Talk with your teen to identify these repetitive thoughts and encourage them to find more helpful ways of thinking, such as:
“I’m doing my best — and that’s all I can do right now.”
“It’s not nice to feel stressed, but it’s normal to be nervous at exam time.”
“This won’t last forever and I’ve got things to look forward to in the summer.”
“I’ll do as much revision as I can in the time I’ve got.”
“Things might come up in the exam that I don’t know so well. I can still do my best.”
6. Beating procrastination
Intense anxiety can cause us to avoid the situations we’re worried about. For teens this can mean difficulties getting started with their revision — a sign they may be more anxious than they are letting on. With so much of a teen’s social life taking place online via Facebook or Snapchat, it’s easy for them to get distracted. Encourage them to put their devices away and suggest they try just 10 minutes of work to get started.
7. Remind them to take a break
Some teens may stay holed up in their bedroom cramming late into the night. Explain that it’s important to take regular short breaks, which will help their mind consolidate what they have just learned. Some families find it helpful to sit down and agree a schedule: for example, everyone stops working at 8pm to eat dinner together.
8. Offer practical support
Start a conversation with your teen about the practical things you can do to help, particularly in terms of giving them time and space to study.
Try to avoid scheduling any big family events during exam season, and it never hurts to keep up regular deliveries of their favourite drinks and snacks.
9. Help them get enough sleep
Teens who are worried about their exams may have difficulty sleeping or stay up late to cram. Help them to get into a good routine: make sure they put any phones or tablets aside an hour before bed as they emit light in a frequency that may make it harder to fall asleep.
10. Show them the power of five deep breaths
One of the simplest things you can do to help a teen who is feeling overwhelmed is to remind them to breathe. By breathing in to a count of five, and breathing out to a count of five, we immediately help ourselves feel a little calmer.
Taking five deep breaths is like applying the body’s built-in braking system: it tells the nervous system to calm down and helps quiet the chatter in our busy minds.
The vast majority of teens will get through their exams just fine. But if your child is suffering severe distress for a prolonged period then you may need to seek help. If you are concerned, watch out for any signs that they are more withdrawn than usual, suffering from a persistent low mood or loss of appetite, or any evidence of eating disorders or self-harm. In such cases, it’s important to consult your GP.