How to support your child during exam season

January 26 2018

Exam season can cause stress for students and parents. To help support your child during this challenging period, Lauenna Luddington, a local registered counsellor specialising in student mental health, has written this helpful guide.

Revising for (and dreading) exams can start to take over a student’s world. When a student starts to fear an exam, the anxiety can have negative consequences for mental health and ironically for cognitive function and exam performance. 

In our human evolution, when sensing a threat, the nervous system triggered our “fight or flight” response and the body prepared for the huge physical feat of fighting or running. All the energy flowed to the part of the brain responsible for these functions, sometimes referred to as the “back brain”. Analytical thinking requires the prefrontal cortex or the “front brain”, however this goes off-line when we are in survival mode. So, how can parents help their children back into the “front brain”?

Firstly, it can be useful to explain what anxiety is. Essentially, if the body is not under threat, anxiety symptoms (fight or flight mode) are a false alarm. The body starts to prepare to run away from a sabre tooth tiger and actually, we don’t need to, it’s just an exam! This in itself can be a reassuring thought, “OK, that’s why I feel like this!” 

Under stress, students (like the rest of us) often catastrophize, imagining a disastrous scenario. Upon sitting down for an exam, students report thoughts such as “I’m going to fail!” or “I’m going to forget everything!” Noticing and challenging these thoughts, essentially invites us back into the front brain.

The rational part of the personality that helps us to calm down and think things through is the “Adult” part of the self. Parents are the models for children’s internal “Adult” and modelling this around exam times is one of the most useful things a parent can do. Responding to your child’s fears with a calm, rational and reassuring presence, shows them not only that a calmer perspective is possible but that it’s useful because it helps us to think clearly. 

So, try drawing attention to the catastrophizing thought and helping your child come up with an alternative. “That’s a very stressy thought, let’s look at the facts” or “I wonder what a more helpful thought might be?” invites the student to access their own inner “Adult” resources. Adolescents can be helped into this state by asking, “What would you say to your friend or sibling in this situation?” It’s often easier to be calmer and reassuring when we imagine helping someone else.

Another frequently-identified negative thought is: “I will let my family down” or “my parents will be so disappointed in me”. Parents might be shocked at how many of these thoughts go through young people’s minds. In the stressful lead up to exams, your child may benefit from being reminded of what may seem obvious to you, that their results do not equate to their value, and that they will be loved and supported regardless. Assure students that, although their exams are important for some practical reasons, disappointing results are not the end of the world, both child and parent will survive it. 

As we adults know, coping well with disappointment is a valuable life skill. When it comes to exams, the less we fear them, the easier it is to stay calm and the better we are likely to perform.