Exams are a huge source of anxiety – and not only for the kids who are taking them. I’m seeing many parents consumed by stress for the duration of exam season. As I’ve been through many cycles of exams with my three kids (from entrance exams to university finals), I thought I’d share my tips on how you can help your kids to cope with exam stress.
How we can help our kids to cope with exam anxiety
Kids are already under a lot of pressure at school and they often pile additional pressure on themselves, too. It’s increasingly common for teenagers to be prescribed antidepressants for stress – and exams are a huge contributor to that.
Anxiety is highly contagious. Parents can, unwittingly and unintentionally, transfer their own worry onto their kids. Even when we don’t articulate our anxiety, kids are highly intuitive and they pick up on it.
Of-course, it’s natural for us to want our kids to fulfil their potential…but that can easily tip over into placing inappropriate expectations on them. In my own family, I’ve had to plead with my parents not to promise my kids rewards for every A* they achieve. I know that grandparents are doing this from a place of love, and are trying to be encouraging and supportive, but this approach just ramps up the pressure on kids.
The way I see my role in exams is this: doing my best to provide a (mainly) calm, peaceful and stress-free environment; being around to empathise when my kids are struggling; providing plenty of nourishing food; encouraging them to have lots of breaks and downtime; and, crucially, ensuring sufficient quality sleep.
Of course exams are important…but they’ll never be as important as the physical, mental and emotional health of our kids.
Exam success isn’t everything
Creating a culture where kids are only satisfied with a full suite of A*s can get them stuck in a paralysing mindset of perfectionism (“I can only do something if I know I’ll get an A*”). That fear of failure is not conducive to being an emotionally resilient, healthy, fulfilled human being. And, at the end of the day, that’s what we all want for our kids.
I think it’s important to place exams in a broader context. Before I became a health coach, I ran a respected PR agency and was involved in hiring young people. Initially, I did look at A-level grades and degree when deciding whether to employ someone. However, as the years went on and I became more experienced as a boss, I stopped taking so much notice of academic results. That’s because I found that they were often meaningless. I noticed that my most creative, most effective, most valued members of staff were not necessarily the ones with the shining academic records. But they had bucketloads of enthusiasm, grit, resilience, determination and perseverance. They were self-motivated and had great social skills. These are the qualities which employers really value.
So if your child is not receiving glowing reports and exam results, please do not despair or think that they are doomed to fail in life. There are so many different types of intelligence and kids develop at their own pace. They all have their own particular gifts and school may not be the place where they come into their own.
In the meantime, whilst our rigid education system does place so much focus on exams, here are six tips for helping your kids to navigate this period.
1. Take a step back
It’s easy for parents to over-identify with their kids and their achievements. This is particularly the case if parents are counting on their children to fulfil the aspirations which they didn’t achieve themselves. This piles even more pressure on kids to “perform” or risk disappointing their family. Remember that it’s your kids taking exams – not you.
2. Learn how to calm your nervous system – and teach that to your kids
Learning is very dependent on our state: we don’t retain facts well if we’re in a state of stress and panic. Fortunately, there are effective, simple tools that help us to self-calm. If you want your kids to be able to calm their nervous system, practise this yourself. Your state affects theirs.
You can learn self-calming tools easily and quickly and start to use them immediately. Tapping, for example, has been shown to be very helpful for helping kids with exam anxiety. It’s a great thing to do before they go into the examination room to help them feel calm and grounded. You can learn how to tap in an easy-to-follow video that I’ve recorded for you, in my Five Days to Calm programme. Access this for free by downloading my Wellness Unwrapped app (on the App Store or Google Play).
3. Chill time is essential
4. Help them to prioritise sleep
Burning the midnight oil every night hampers our ability to absorb, retain and process information. So, although it might be tempting for kids to stay up into the early hours, cramming, that’s not the best way to help themselves to succeed. And it’s not just our cognitive abilities that are affected by lack of sleep: it’s our mental health too.
Encourage your kids to put all their work away, out of sight, at a reasonable time. It’s helpful to adopt a wind-down ritual before bedtime (preferably not involving screens), such as a relaxing bath or shower. This helps them to draw a line under their revision and prepare their mind for sleep.
NB. It’s important that you model good sleep habits yourself because your habits are going to be the biggest influence over your kids.
5. Help your kids to manage their blood sugar and fuel their brain
If our blood sugar is all over the place because we’ve had a bowl of cereal or a bagel for breakfast, our brain goes offline and we can’t think properly. It’s also really hard to concentrate in an echoing exam room if your tummy is rumbling! So try and get your kids to eat something that includes protein and good fats to stabilise their blood sugar (you can find four delicious, brain-boosting breakfast recipes here). Nuts are a wonderful, brain-friendly snack for kids to have to hand in their school bag – or try my cacao brainy balls.
And make sure your kids are keeping themselves hydrated. Our cognitive ability starts to malfunction even when we are the teeniest bit dehydrated, so kids need to drink water regularly. NB. Stay well away from energy drinks: they’re toxic concoctions of sugar and caffeine and they keep kids wired and unable to sleep at night.
6. Accept them for who they are
It’s crucial not to fall into the trap of comparing your child to a sibling or to anyone else. Notice and appreciate effort rather than results. Do reinforce to your kids that you love them for who they are and not what they achieve: and that, whatever happens, you’re proud of them.
Above all, remember that this will pass and that exams are not everything. To hear more of my thoughts on this topic, have a listen to this episode of my Midlife Illuminated podcast: How to Help your Kids to Cope with Exams.