• Grace McMahon

Supporting young people with exam stress

We’re heading to that time of year when the pressure ramps up, our young people are facing exams that determine their futures (kind of), A Levels, GCSEs, Stats. Exams season is round the corner and it’s a difficult time for our young people, so read on for how to help your kids beat exam stress.



Cast your mind back, to your exam seasons, whatever the level it wasn’t an easy time, right? For the younger ones the prospect of tests and performing academically is daunting. For our teens the pressure is on to make decisions about their futures and get the grades to make sure they can follow their chosen path, all the while trying to manage the turmoil of puberty!


Nervousness is a totally normal reaction during this period, but for some of our young people the pressure they feel can tip nerves into stress, anxiety, low moods and other mental health challenges. But trying to help organise revision time tables, encouraging them to form healthy habits to support their wellbeing, and getting them to open up about how they're feeling further than a self-explanatory grunt over dinner, can be an uphill struggle.


As parents, one of the best ways to help is just to be there for them, listen to their concerns and reassure them. There’s little point in trying to convince them (or yourselves) that it doesn’t need to be stressful and there’s nothing to worry about - because while in the grand scheme of things there probably isn’t, for them, it’s the biggest thing going on in their lives, and likely one of the most stressful things they’ve experienced so far. Instead, help them - and you - accept that this isn’t an easy time but it will pass.


So how can we support them?


Put it into perspective

While it’s important to accept that it’s a stressful time for young people, it’s also important to put this stress into perspective, otherwise it can become counterproductive. High stress levels make it more difficult to focus, to consolidate information, to sleep and to cope with daily life - all things we ideally need when it comes to revision and exams. Encourage your young people to put the effort in to do their best, and remind them that their best is enough. Whatever the outcome, it’s enough.


Schedule small but frequent rewards

Burnout in young people is common during exams, they put so much effort into doing well and when there’s little reward (till the results come in) it can be a recipe for burnout. Make time to celebrate after an exam no matter how it went, get their favourite thing in for tea after a long day of revision, acknowledge their efforts, praise the hard work, and spend time away from anything school, work, or exam related from time to time.


Go easy on the chores and mess

As much as you at least, we can encourage them to take care of their spaces; tidy space is a tidy mind. But let’s be real, making sure the ‘floordrobe’ is under control, their bed is made, and 80% of the mugs aren’t decorating their desks isn’t likely to be top priority for them. Try to be forgiving, try not to nag (too much), but maybe a friendly reminder that other people need coffee to function too or that the washing up fairy does not exist might keep them on track.


Empathise with the moodiness

And when the repertoire of dirty looks, backchat and wails of despair are directed at you, try to be empathetic. When stress levels are running high, so do emotions. We tend to be more volatile, over-reactive, and often more tearful. So while you're trying to be helpful with revision tips, suggesting to clean up some space, or encouraging them to put their phones down, try to be patient.


Create a revision schedule with them (and include downtime)

Help your young people create a revision schedule that suits their needs, learning style, and ensure it’s not all about work. Rest is equally important during this time, spending time outside, doing activities, eating well, sleeping enough, and having downtime to switch off are just as necessary in the lead up to exams as the revision itself. Help them work out their revision style, the best time to get work done and when to relax, or do something unrelated to revisions. They might be most productive in the morning after breakfast and prefer to get outside later on, or vice versa. They might prefer to concentrate on a different subject each day or mix and match throughout. They’ll likely do a lot of this in school, but it can be helpful to look through it together so you’re on the same page and give them space to get on with it.


It’s an important time that can affect all the family, our kids are going to be stressed and we can’t stop this, but if we’re worried that the stress is taking its toll, look out for any obvious changes to their usual behaviour. All teens are different, some may be keen on going out more, others might withdraw as a result of stress. They may sleep or eat more or less than usual, but a tell-tale sign is how emotionally reactive they are, if they are more volatile than usual, speak to the school or visit your GP for support in managing their stress.


Exam expectations: As parents we want our children and young people to do well in their exams, to ensure they have options in the future, can take the paths they want to, and to be content in life. But exams aren’t the be all and end all of success, and while these expectations often come from a place of love, try not to put extra pressure on your kids to be the best, and remind them that working hard is enough whatever the outcome of results are.