Do you have a teenager at home going through the HSC or senior exams this year? Or maybe a young adult studying at College?

Teenagers of today are under so much pressure to ‘be the best’, and ‘work hard to get results’. Pressure from teachers, society, and sometimes parents or family members can be overwhelming, and exam stress is growing.

The adolescents of today will become part of one of the most educated generations in Australia’s history. While we hope that helpful, consistent messages are being sent to our young people, such as “Your best is good enough” and “The HSC is not the sole key to your future success,” we know that cultural, parental, educational, and individual factors can significantly influence the way a student thinks and feels about their exams.

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A small amount of exam stress or anxiety is sometimes helpful, and may provide your child with the motivation and energy needed to prepare and study for their exams. It’s when this anxiety morphs into excessive worry, insomnia, poor concentration, or ongoing procrastination, then the anxiety becomes unhelpful and a concern. You may find that your child continues to have thoughts of worry, or experience high levels of stress, impacting on their ability to study.

So what are the most common forms of distress, and how do you as a parent help manage them?

1.       Physical Symptoms – Such as nausea, racing heart, sweating, shaking. These arise due to the body’s fear response, creating a ‘fight or flight’ feeling. Engaging in calming activities (e.g. walking, listening to music) and thinking helpful thoughts can help alleviate these symptoms.

2.       Worry Thoughts – Such as “What if I fail” “What if I forget everything?”. These thoughts can make study seem overwhelming or impossible, leading to procrastination. Students should revise their study plan into smaller tasks, focusing on the present moment and not listen to worry. This will turn the thinking brain back on.

3.       Negative self-beliefs – Such as “I can’t do this”, “I am stupid; my friends are smarter than me”. These thoughts often stem from past experiences or feeling down, and are incredibly unhelpful. Support from family, friends, or a professional is very important if a student finds themselves caught up in this cycle.

How to help your child through their exam stress

For most students, excessive study or exam stress can be prevented with the support of family, and implementing some simple, effective tactics:

1.       Eat healthy snacks and stay hydrated –  Our brain uses a lot of energy when studying, so it is important to have healthy snacks available to munch on and water for hydration. Research indicates that the average brain can study effectively for approximately 45 minutes at a time.

2.       Continue Social and Physical Activities – As much as possible, students social and physical activities should continue during exam periods, as this gives their brain a break from study.

3.       Create a study plan: Creating a study plan that incorporates at least a 5 minute break in between study periods is ideal. When uncertain, anxiety can take over a young adults life. Creating a comprehensive study plan can help ease worry thoughts, such as “What if I don’t have enough time to get through each subject?”

Tips for parents to assist in creating a study plan:

          Break down each unit into topics, allocating time to each one
          Make summary notes
          Read and listen to each summary, creating mind maps, writing practice questions to test yourself later, and discussing concepts with your peers or family may be included in your study plan
          Include regular breaks and meal times

4.       Helpful thoughts: It can be helpful for your child to write down a few helpful, realistic thoughts and place these on their desk as prompts to remind their brain to be supportive during this time. Whilst motivational statements work well for some teens, others benefit from thinking realistically in terms of the ‘most likely’ scenario and developing a back-up plan in the event that things don’t go well.

It’s important as parents to understand that your teenager or young adult’s brain isn’t yet fully developed, and therefore they still require assistance and guidance from you through these exam stress periods. Open communication is essential, and if you are the one ensuring they take the breaks they need, this can ease pressure for them.

If your son, daughter, or a loved one requires some help with strategies or support in managing their study or exam stress, it’s okay to reach out for professional support. An expert in this area can really help you and your child manage these feelings and learn ways to manage them so you can move forward through your exams with more ease.