Exam stress: psychology tips for parents

Recently I've had the pleasure of working with a lot of young people, both in Pocket’s therapy space and virtually as an A-level Psychology tutor.

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of young people, both in Pocket’s therapy space and virtually as an A-level Psychology tutor. Many share the same worry…exams. Our young people are feeling the pressure and I’ve been in their position, it’s tough! Here are four psychology tips for parents to help support their children at this stressful time. 

1. Don’t have your child do it to please you or others

Don’t have your child study hard to please you or for financial reward. By secondary school, the drive to succeed needs to come from the young person. Those that take an active approach to make things happen have what we call an ‘internal locus of control’. They recognise that their own hard work and enthusiasm shapes the outcomes in their life, meaning they don’t need to rely on others for motivation.

Lots of young people have already developed this drive and so the extra pressure from their parents or teachers feels too heavy to carry. A recent study found that 55% of students felt pressured to succeed in exams and of those surveyed, 86.5% considered their parents to be the main form of pressure. 

So instead of giving away £25 for every A grade, help your young person to visualise their future. How might their grades give them more choice and freedom, leading to a more fulfilling lifestyle? Perhaps a good grade in science may give them the option of an apprenticeship scheme or a university course in a bigger city. The city life may allow them to meet more like-minded people with a passion for music and start that band they’ve dreamed of being in, during their spare time.

2. Keep a close eye on stress levels

A little bit of stress can be very helpful when it comes to exams, it gives a young person the energy to focus and get their head in the game. But, Yerkes-Dodson Law shows us that this stress can quickly tip over into being counterproductive and lead to decreased performance. 

Help your child to monitor their stress levels and actively encourage down-time when things get a bit too much. Different techniques will work for different people, so focus on what de-stresses and soothes your child. Here some of our favourites:

  • Put this stage of their life into perspective: good grades seem like everything right now but they’re a stepping stone to the next adventure. Help them focus on what is ‘good enough’ to get where they want to be next. Perhaps their university course will allow a C instead of A, and the chances are, they won’t even remember their grades in years to come!
  • Adapt routine and demands at home to ensure home life is predictable and low on stress: work out what really matters at this time. Perhaps they could be let off doing the dishwasher for a few weeks, so they can spend the extra ten minutes chilling out in front of the tv, before their next revision session?
  • Fill their free time with soothing experiences: this could be a cinema trip, an exercise class or even just watching a Netflix show together. Think about what specific senses soothe your child.
  • Keep in mind that our children are under much more pressure with exams than we were: young people are put through intense testing and they (and their schools) are ranked based on their performance. The pressure is real! 

3. Help them to think flexibly and have trust in themselves

Help your child to develop the skill of thinking and behaving flexibly. This requires a certain amount of trust in themselves and the world around them that things will work out, even if they go off course. If things with these exams go wrong, there’s always another way ahead. Sometimes changing routes leads to the best experiences- I originally chose to study A-level Biology and Chemistry (and hated it) so I stayed an extra year and swapped to History and Psychology… I definitely wouldn’t be writing this blog post without that change of plan! Disappointing results does not mean they are a failure or stupid, it is just what happened on this occasion, there are multiple factors that will have an influence on the result.

4. Doing your best is sometimes too hard

I’ll always remember a conversation I had with a friend whilst we were completing our A-levels. I couldn’t understand why, even after they told me that their grades mattered to them, they were struggling to find the motivation to revise and do their best. They replied with similar words to these. 

If I try my best and I still fail, then I’ve proven to myself and those around me that I just couldn’t do it. If I don’t revise and I fail, then that’s what everyone expects to happen. I haven’t let myself or anybody else down. It’s not a reflection on my intellectual ability, it’s just that I didn’t put the work in and give it my all this time.

Doing your best is sometimes too hard. Many people are frightened to ‘do their best’ in case it exposes them as inadequate in some way.  Some people sub-consciously choose to protectively handicap themselves. But what can you do as a parent to deal with this?

  • Help them to feel ‘good enough’. They need to know that your love and acceptance is unconditional and that no matter what they achieve, you’ll always be there for support. Perhaps, you could write them a note in the morning with something you love about them that isn’t about their academic ability?
  • Encourage bravery and remind them of a time when they did something and they did it well. Could they give their favourite subject their best shot, whilst taking the pressure off themselves to do their best in a subject that means less to them?

We’d like to wish all of our young people the very best with their exams! Remember to take breaks and show yourself some kindness.

If you’d like to see more tips based on psychology, head over to our Instagram page which can be found here. 

As always,

Take care

Pocket Family Psychologist

Written by Ellie Harper

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"Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative"

“Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative. During the second period of lockdown and home-schooling; parents and children found themselves again in a period of upheaval and transition. Many parents and carers were extremely worried about their children’s mental health and their own ability to be present and engaged whilst also playing the role of teacher and care giver. Dr Shortland gave attendees an insight into how many parents were feeling; tips on supporting children and helping them cope whilst studying from home and also managing their mental health. She also helped us realise the importance of taking care of ourselves in order to effectively support our children. It was such a useful session that we realise it was also pertinent for not only children’s mental health but also adults! We will be holding another session with Dr Andrea and MediaCom soon.”

Avelon Thompson, MediaCom (following a parenting workshop)