Exam Stress: Parents must stay calm and confident

With exams here, it’s important for anxious parents to find the balance between supporting their children’s efforts and nagging them to distraction.

The reality is that we parents often worry more about the work that needs to be done than our teenagers do.

We will all have certain expectations for how our teenagers should perform in their exams. When our expectations of how well they will do match with their expectations, then there is likely to be some level of harmony in the house.

Unfortunately, it is regularly the case that our expectations of how our teenagers will do don’t match their expectations. If our expectations are too high then they may choose to switch off because they feel they haven’t a hope of reaching those expectations.

If our expectations are too low then they may equally feel unmotivated because they believe nobody cares how they do in the exams.

Like in so many parenting situations, then, we must find balance — between what we expect and what is genuinely attainable for our son or daughter.

Research demonstrates a very clear link between the level of stress that we experience and our performance at different tasks. That research suggests that we need a little bit of stress to perform well.

How much stress is the right amount will vary from student to student. Because every person has their own tolerance for stress, some youngsters will be at their optimum when the deadline for the exams is virtually upon them and everyone’s expectations are high. Others need a much more low-key approach to avoid being overwhelmed.

Understanding what causes exam stress, and understanding how that stress impacts on your son or daughter, will help you to guide and support them in the final build-up to the start of June.

There are three main reasons why exams are stressful for teenagers. The first reason is that they can worry about something that is unknown. This is called an anticipatory anxiety.

When we don’t know what to expect we can create ideas, expectations and anticipations in our minds. Sometimes these might be positive, other times they may be negative. If they are negative then we can come to dread the anticipated event.


The second reason for exam stress is a fear of failure. If your expectations, or those of others, are very high then this can really pressure your son or daughter who will probably not want to disappoint you.

Equally, by the time of the Leaving Certificate many students have a clearer idea of what they want to do after school and so they are probably aiming to achieve a certain result for themselves to give them those college choices. This means that they might be putting undue pressure on themselves.

The third reason for exam stress is related to the volume of work to be covered. The curriculum can be vast and depending on how methodical students are (or have been!) in their preparation they can reach that point of feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared. Panic, at not getting the course covered or revised, can set in.

No matter what the source of the stress and anxiety the experience of it will be the same. Essentially, stress is a very physical experience. Adrenaline gets released when we get stressed and this puts our heart rate up, increases the rate of our breathing and leads to muscle tension or that feeling of a knotted-up stomach.

Once our bodies start feeling stressed, it will impact on our mood and our thinking and the whole experience becomes a bit circular. The more we worry the more stressed we feel.

Dealing with the anxiety can involve a number of approaches. Your first step is to try to help your teenager work out the source of their stress.

If it’s fear of failure, it may be possible to help them lower or clarify their expectations so that they feel more able to achieve what they then hope to get. Whatever about their own expectations it is really not helpful for you to put unnecessary pressure on them.

One powerful element that motivates teenagers to apply themselves is, as mentioned, their own internal desire to do well and to achieve. If your son or daughter doesn’t have a goal or a realistic plan for what they would like to do after school then it can be really hard to get stuck into study.

Encourage them to remember that they are studying because they want to achieve some (or all!) of their potential, not because anybody else is studying or not.

For some students, however ‘what’s the point?’ is often their refrain when you try to help them focus or (as they might see it) nag them to study.

The only real point that I can ever see is that education and exam results give them choices that they might not otherwise have. Because there is no tangible goal, however, even this may not be motivating.

So, contrary to what I said earlier, if your son or daughter has no internal motivation to apply themselves then I do recommend that you do your version of ‘nag’; if internal motivation is lacking then you have to provide some external motivation.

This means you might have to keep reminding them to study, to work, or to think ahead. Use your experience of the world to demonstrate to them that better results matter.

You may not necessarily get them to the peak of their potential but even if they take in a bit more knowledge before the exam it will stand them in good stead.

This is tough work for parents, and you will probably feel unappreciated for all of your efforts to motivate them, so mind yourself with some time off or some space to vent to friends or family.

Hopefully, however, your teenager sees some value in the exams and so then your aim is to make sure that they are as efficient as possible in their study techniques.

Attention span

We know that 20 minutes is about the maximum attention span of most adults. So it is realistic for your teenager to plan for a series of 15-minute study periods with a five-minute break after each 15 minutes studying. This way they will get a very focused 45 minutes of study in every hour.

If they stay at the subject for 15 minutes they can then reward themselves with checking their texts, updating their Facebook or whatever they want for the few minutes before launching off again.

Every five or six study periods they should take a longer break and make a cup of tea, or go for a quick walk or have a snack.

Suggest to them that they reward themselves at the end of a day studying too; perhaps by treating themselves to something nice like a bath, a good book, some uninterrupted time on the computer, TV or games console, a long phone call to a friend.

Exercise and diet are also really important to help them feel more in control of their anxiety and stress. This is the one area that parents can be very helpful as we can direct our energies, usefully, to minding our teenagers with cups of tea and wholesome food.

Eating well and regularly and getting outdoors or staying involved with sports will also counteract the negative physical effect of the stress and improve their mood.

Sleeping is also very important. Late-night studying doesn’t give the body a chance to recover and also makes it hard for the brain to switch off when they do go to bed.

State exams are a big deal and because of that they will probably lead to an appropriate and understandable amount of anxiety amongst our teenagers. The most important thing we can do is to avoid panicking ourselves.

If we seem grounded and confident it will go a long way to helping them to stay calm and on track.

This piece was written by David Coleman, clinical psychologist, broadcaster & author. First published in the Irish Independent, to view original publication click here.