For many parents, having a child who is sitting the Junior or Leaving Cert can be quite a daunting experience and a difficult one to navigate. Similar to a marathon, exams are an endurance test of body and mind, where teenagers can often hit a ‘wall’ mid-way through. This is when things go from being a bit challenging to being really, really challenging. It is the exact point where their bodies and minds are simultaneously tested, the perfect intersection of fatigue and diminished brain functioning. How teenagers handle ‘the exam wall’ can make or break their performance, which is where your role as parent comes in.
Adjust your Expectations
Although they are the ones sitting the exams, you will understandably experience a huge amount of worry at this time. Nothing can stop you from feeling that sense of protectiveness over them. More than anything, you want them to be satisfied with their performance so they can progress on with their dreams and future lives.
This may well be one of the biggest moments in your child’s life. For this reason it is crucial that you remain calm and keep your expectations out of it. Try not to nag or add pressure to an already pressurised situation. You may think you are helping them but critical comments will not produce better results. Instead your child will be less likely to share their feelings with you. What they need now more than ever is your unconditional love and solidarity.
Identifying Good and Bad Stress
Exams are one of the many challenges life brings which can result in stress. ‘Stress’ is a state of mental tension resulting from demanding circumstances. Stress is built into our systems to protect us. Stress keeps us alert and helps us to react quickly to danger. Whilst we don't have to run away from predators anymore, a little stress can really help us to react to life’s challenges and can be good in small amounts. Your child would not get stressed if the exams weren’t important to them.
Known as ‘optimal stress’, this not too high or not too low level of stress helps to activate concentration and motivation throughout exams. New research tells us that it is our belief in stress being harmful which does the most damage. Parents should therefore encourage teenagers to embrace stress rather than panic at the first sign of it. Hence, physical signs of stress could be welcomed as a message that their bodies are helping them to deal with the challenge ahead (i.e. ‘Your heart is pounding ready to pump oxygen into your brain’).
Your role is to recognise the difference between healthy levels of stress and anxiety. When stress gets out of hand it becomes anxiety. Anxiety is characterised by more persistent worries and physical signs which really interfere with daily life. If the pressure feels bigger than their ability to cope, encourage your child to lean on you for emotional and practical support. They could also talk to a teacher or counsellor or access age-appropriate services on www.yourmentalhealth.ie. It is best for them to seek help early rather than struggle on.
Boosting their energy levels
Late nights, bad stress, missed meals and poor sleep will play havoc with brain power. Like training for any other game, for the marathon that is the exams teenagers should be stocking up on special food and drinks to build up the power of their brains. Eating well is good for their mental as well as physical health. In the absence of being able to help your child with study, this is where your role can really come into its own. Here are my top suggestions:
- Whilst the natural temptation is to reach for something sweet for immediate energy, the temporary high from a sugar-fix will invariably be followed by crashing blood sugar levels causing a nosedive in concentration, mood and fatigue. To keep their brains happy, stock up on nutritious brain foods like those mentioned in Carla Bredin’s ‘top tips for optimising your nutrition for brain power’. Have healthy snacks on hand. Get a good fish oil supplement and Vitamin B complex.
Pace is everything
You can help to take the sting out of ‘the wall’ midway through the exams by focusing on your child’s pace and by following a routine. Whilst teenagers can be very determined in trying to manage independently, you can set the optimal conditions in which they can thrive:
- Today’s students are studying longer, spending more time on social media and sleeping less. Sleep is as important to learning as exercise is to building physical stamina. If they want to maximize their time learning they must sleep at least 6 hours the night before an exam. This will allow at least some amount of REM sleep, which occurs later in the night and helps consolidate memories of what they studied and learned that day. ‘All-nighters’ will have a detrimental impact on performance. Here, John Gallaher, discusses the importance of sleep.
- Taking breaks from studying to exercise is vital as it boosts energy, clears their minds, reduces feelings of bad stress and enriches sleep quality. Encourage them to take 30 minutes of exercise a day (‘I think you could use a break’; ‘You always feel better after a walk’). Have a healthy snack waiting for them on their return.
- Ensure they get a proper balance between study and rest. They will need time to rest and recharge after an exam. Encourage them to plan rewards for their hard work, like doing something they really enjoy which makes them feel special. Time catching up with friends can be a great stress buster!
- If they are prone to panicking during an exam, encourage them to practice simple relaxation techniques at home by closing their eyes and taking several long, slow deep breaths. Mentally repeat ‘When I am calm, my mind will do what I need it to do’. Download the Headspace app for further relaxation exercises on the go.
Acknowledge the story of the exam and move on
If your teenager seems unhappy about an exam, it is important to meet them where they are at by acknowledging and reflecting their feelings back to them (e.g. ‘I notice you aren’t so happy with your exam today, how did you feel it went?’) Open up conversations on a walk or in the car as teenagers prefer shoulder-to-shoulder chats where they don’t feel too exposed. They may not want to share how they feel immediately so don’t push them to share. At least you have opened up the conversation and let them know that you are there for them. Once you have acknowledged and talked through your teenager’s feelings, encourage them to ‘close the book’ on that exam and to focus on the next one.
Perspective is something you have which your child is unlikely to have right now. Remind them that this will be over in a short few weeks and to try to hang in there. Having a positive attitude accounts for at least a third of their success on an exam, so transforming a negative or fearful attitude into a more positive one is crucial. This is where visualisation comes in. Encourage them to have a listen to a guided imagery I recorded which will help them to visualise the process of taking an exam successfully. “I can be anxious later, now is the time to take the exam”; “I am ready to rise up to meet this challenge”.
Finally, let your child know that you are proud of them no matter what. You mean everything to them, so continual words of encouragement will go such a long way. Good luck!