Max’s A-level brain food and avoiding revision meltdown

Exam season is upon us (my eldest son, Max, is about to take his A-levels) and I often find myself being quizzed on “how I’m coping”…a question which always leaves me a little lost for an answer. I don’t mean for my viewpoint here to be controversial or, heaven forbid, disparaging to others…but I find myself in a minority of not being much affected by the exams.

There’s no doubt that stress levels amongst kids the length and breadth of the country are sky-high… but a lot of British parents, too, appear to be imprisoned in a vortex of anxiety, whether their children are preparing for GSCEs, A-levels or the 11-Plus. Somehow, it’s become widespread for them to spend evening after evening holed up with their kids, sitting with them while they revise. I’m not sure when this became normal, as it completely passed me by (happily, I no longer have to get involved in my 10-year-old’s homework so it wouldn’t even enter my head to supervise my teenage sons.)

My own parents certainly never got involved with my studies and I wouldn’t have wanted or expected them to. And that’s the approach I’m sticking to: leaving kids to get on with it and trusting that they can and will.

It’s not that I don’t care deeply about my kids fulfilling their potential and doing as well as they can in their exams. I do. But I also care deeply that they have a healthy digestion system and, frankly, I wouldn’t consider sitting with them while they’re on the loo!

Every family is different and my ethos is always a resounding “do what works best for you”. Personally speaking, though, I have no desire to put my life on hold for the duration of the exam period or have my evenings dictated by it. After all, I’m not taking any A-levels – my son is. If he does well, that’s his. If he doesn’t do so well, that’s his too. Either way, it’s no reflection on me.

I do think that a bit of distance is helpful to counter the growing tendency to over-identify with our kids and their achievements. I often hear from mums who say they no longer have any sense of self – they have basically sacrificed their entire identity, aspirations, needs and (most worryingly) health and wellbeing at the altar of parenthood.

The way I see my role in exams is this: doing my best to provide a calm, peaceful and stress-free environment; making sure the kids are getting plenty of the right foods; encouraging them to have lots of breaks and downtime; and, absolutely crucially, ensuring sufficient quality sleep. That means no phones in their room after bedtime.

Kids are already under extreme pressure at school and they often pile huge pressure on themselves, too. It’s now increasingly common for teenagers to be prescribed antidepressants for stress and Childline is being flooded with calls from anxious teens worrying about exams. The last thing I want to do is add to that pressure. Anxiety is highly contagious and parents can, unwittingly and unintentionally, transfer their own worry onto their already pressurised offspring. That’s why I limit my input to the odd enquiry about how it’s going and a bit of spoiling with extra nice dinners.

Of course exams are important but, for me, they’ll never be as important as the physical, mental and emotional health of our kids. The other thing to remember is that stressed-out, burnt-out, sleep-deprived, anxious kids who are burning the midnight oil every night are not best placed to absorb, retain and process information.

Then there’s the longer-term view. Over the years, I’ve employed dozens of people in my former role as PR boss…and I know that resourceful, resilient, proactive self-starters are what employers value. I believe that these qualities are what we should be cultivating in teenagers.

Now it might be that I’ve just been very fortunate with my eldest and that I’ll be pulling my hair out with his younger siblings…but Max has a pretty healthy, chilled attitude to studying. In fact, he’s something of a role model for me, despite the fact that he’s just turned 18 and I’m the 45-year-old health coach. He begins his day with his favourite tahini/almond butter/cocoa combo (AKA his Tahini Sundae which you can watch him make here) or avocado and nuts – all loaded with the good fats that his brain needs to function properly and which stabilise his blood sugar so he can concentrate properly. He will often take himself off for a walk to give his brain a break and get the benefit of being in the fresh air. On Sunday, he took his books to a nearby river and sat on the bank to study, which he said was his most productive revision session so far.

So that’s Max’s strategy for dealing with the exam season. What’s yours? If you have any tips for parents or kids on how to cope with exams, please share!

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