Although students this year have the option of accredited grades, most have opted to sit the Leaving Certificate exams. Even if they have not, assessments have been happening in schools for all students to inform teachers in estimating grades. Many students have underlying worries approaching their exams, regardless of their academic capabilities. No matter how big or small, all exam worries can affect a student’s exam performance and overall well-being. These worries can also appear in various disguises including lashing out, negative self-talk, unexplained physical ailments, or going from a diligent to an indifferent student overnight. For parents, exam season can be difficult to navigate and cultivates a mixed sense of protectiveness and powerlessness. However, a parent’s support during exam season is imperative.
Emphatically listening to your child’s worries without dismissing any (no matter how irrational they seem) can help ease much stress. This non-judgmental listening ear gives your child the opportunity to express their underlying worries in a healthy way. Try opening up conversations when you are shoulder-to-shoulder rather than face-to-face to help them feel more comfortable and less exposed or interrogated. They may not want to share their worries with you immediately, but will know that you are willing to listen when they are ready.
Under the pressures that accompany exams, thought patterns can often go askew and lead to irrational thoughts predicting worst-case scenarios or backing an “all or nothing” mindset. As parents witnessing this you can take the role of acknowledging the thoughts of your child while also letting them know that you believe the opposite to be true. Remind your child of how strong they are and help them recall a time or situation when they came through, managed, survived a similarly anxious time. This will help support your child in coming up with a more balanced way of thinking.
During exam time, there is an apparent shift in values. Many children will begin to measure their own self-worth on exam performance, or by comparing themselves to siblings, peers, or others around them. As a parent, remind your child of their individual intrinsic qualities, which truly represent who they are (caring, humorous, creative, etc.) and avoid adding to the comparison dialogue with examples of how well others handled a similar experience. Most importantly, let your child know that no matter what the outcome, you will be able to deal with it together and that you accept them regardless of their academic achievements.
Exam season can be physically, mentally, and emotionally energy zapping, with study demands often placing a healthy lifestyle balance by the wayside. However, maintaining a healthy balance will benefit your child hugely. Keeping a balanced diet, drinking enough water, engaging in regular physical activity, getting a good night’s sleep and preserving time for enjoyable interests is essential. Now, before the exam stress commences, is also an ideal time to encourage your child to begin practising some relaxation techniques or mindfulness exercises. Practising these skills now will allow your child to readily draw on them as a healthy coping mechanism during unhelpful exam stress. A healthy level of stress naturally improves motivation and exam focus, and all of the above will help keep these stress levels at this optimal level.
- Support your child in challenging their worries
First acknowledge the worries your child is having. Then support them in coming up with a more balanced way of thinking about these worries. An example might be changing “I’m going to fail!” to “I’ve passed a hard exam before, I can do it again”. It might also help if your child writes this balanced thought down for future reference.
- Set miniature goals
Help your child breakdown their overwhelming workload into smaller, more manageable steps ahead of their exam.
- Celebrate effort
Take every opportunity to celebrate the effort your child is putting in to prepare. After an exam, avoid immediately asking what grade they obtained and instead ask a more open question about how they found the experience.
- Good enough is good enough!
Try to adopt this mantra in your household. Your child will be feeling pressure from all angles and it is important that you try not to add to this overwhelming feeling. Notice your expectations and whether these are adding additional pressure.
- Balance is key
Help your child to maintain a healthy life balance during this busy time. This includes diet, water intake, relaxation, social engagement, and preserving time to do the things they love.
- Look after yourself
Be sure not to forget about your own wellbeing during this overwhelming period. Modelling a healthy life balance will also benefit your child. As they say “you can’t pour from an empty cup!”
This article was written by HSE Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Services, a member of Parenting Limerick. Parenting Limerick is a network of parenting and family support organisations.