Tuesday 26 April 2016

Teenage Exam Stress - Top Tips for Parents

Teenagers Translated Revision tips for parents

Some households are facing Exams this summer.  We are the spokespeople for NCS, the UKs flagship youth programme:  here is our advice, based on their recent research that most teenagers need to be left alone when they are suffering exam stress.  So how can parents smoothly navigate revision & exam stress and build stress resilience in their teenager?    

1.     Help them set realistic goals:   Some children set unrealistic targets which in turn have a de-motivational effect because the brain goes into panic mode (“Help, I can’t do this!”).  Have a casual conversation when the moment seems right, and run through each subject/topic, asking your child to tell you what is achievable and realistic.  At this stage, goals are likely to be (pessimistically) low.  They may love the idea of an A, but a B is realistic, so having the conversation stops them from setting themselves up for failure & disappointment.  If B is the Goal and they achieve this, they should feel good about the results and you can remind them on results day that (hopefully) they achieved more than they had anticipated. 
2.     Expect a rollercoaster:    With all the changes going on in the teenage brain, when children are under pressure the bit that controls emotions is still work in progress.  Ranting is a way of letting off steam.  Parents should separate out the inevitable teenage rollercoaster from unacceptable behaviour.  Explain to your child that you understand that they are struggling, but this does not mean you are willing to be their punchbag.  Encourage them to recognise the early warning signs that stress levels are rising and make sure they are aware of what helps THEM to let off steam in good ways (a run, kick a ball, a walk, cook, call a friend for a chat).  This in turn will help them from misplacing their anger on to other people that could have negative repercussions.
3.     Normal adolescent behaviour:   New research from NCS suggests that one good thing parents can do to support a teenager is to drop the reins and not micro-manage, even when you feel that what you are doing is helpful.  This is a time when they need to start putting some distance between themselves and their parents.  So hovering and fussing over them with comforting drinks and snacks can feel suffocating and annoying.  This is a time of developing self-governance and independence. 
4.     Set the emotional temperature:    Emotional climates are contagious which means that parents can encourage a stress free environment at home by being calm and not unwittingly fuelling anxiety by worrying.  Worrying conveys a message that you don’t trust their abilities.  If you have a busy life juggling work and home, make sure you look after yourself at this time and don’t “catch” your child’s stress and anxiety.  Routines help maintain equilibrium, so ensure you provide regular family mealtimes & family life remains consistent. Find time for humour too. 
5.     There is light at the end of the tunnel:  Parents know that this will all end, so it is good to convey a sense that this period is transient.  Revision & exams will feel never-ending to your child so make sure that they maintain the energy and drive to get to the finishing post.  Optimism and fun will help to top up the focus and positivity tank.  Make sure there is time at the weekend for fun activities like a takeaway in the evening or a cinema visit with friends.  It is vital that they keep pursuing interests and hobbies now and during exams to help boost good brain chemicals and keep stress levels down.  Talk about summer holidays and what they have to look forward to after exams have finished.  A good, and low cost option is a programme like NCS that offers fun and adventure as well as the chance to meet new friends.
6.     You know your child best, use your intuition:    Most young people will experience some form of stress between now and exams.  However, 6-8 weeks is too long a time to suffer, in some cases the pressure can become overwhelming.   If you notice that your teenager is panicky, unnaturally low/pessimistic, has dramatically changed eating habits, is struggling to get to sleep/waking in the night or showing any other extreme behaviours, keep a close eye on them.  These are early warning signs and can lead to your child resorting to negative coping strategies like panic attacks, self harming, technology addiction or eating disorders.  If you are concerned, suggest that that you book an appointment with the GP  
7.     Technology usage:   Exam time can provide an ideal opportunity to approach this thorny subject with your child.  Keeping in touch with their social group is natural and healthy, but being distracted from work through social media/gaming/You Tube affects the brains ability to focus and memorise.  Most online activity is more exciting and interesting than revision, but it also over excites and tires the brain.  Rather then restricting & dictating technology usage, give them information and facts.  They are only kidding themselves if they work for 8 hours, but have in fact done very little revision.  Encourage them to use their phone/social media as a reward after the boring stuff is out of the way.  You will also be encouraging them to get into good habits for the future and letting them self-police.  
8.     Avoid comparisons:   Adolescence is a vulnerable time when children start to develop their identity and naturally compare themselves to others.  Children tend to be self-critical and their self worth is affected by the lives and opinions of others.  Parents must make sure that efforts to motivate (“your sister did well in her exams”) are not fuelling pessimism and frustration.  Separate out Effort and Achievement and focus on Effort.  Would they like any help from you/teacher/friend to keep them focused and to memorise the material?   The teenage brain is liable to misread communication, particularly when under pressure.  Make sure your child knows where you stand.  “I can’t do the work for you and I don’t mind what grades you get, but I would like you to avoid feeling angry with yourself when you get your results because you know that you didn’t put the effort in”.  The teenage brain struggles with linking Actions to Consequences.  
9.     Planning & Organising:   Encourage your child to find a place to work away from their bedroom.  Parents may have to tolerate some upheaval around the house whilst exams are on.  It is good to separate out Work & Downtime.  The Work place could be phone free too.  Make sure your child has done their own revision plan with lots of small, do-able tasks (hourly/daily/weekly) because ticking the box gives a sense of achievement & boosts motivation.  Revision is a marathon, not a sprint - Cramming last minute and burning the midnight oil might result in early burnout.  Help them to be aware of when they feel bored or distracted and get them to take regular study breaks - go outside, look at their phone and go back to work once refreshed.  

10.  Self Care:  Make sure that your child is getting plenty of physical exercise because this helps boost mental performance:  any exercise, walking to school, a run, team sports.  They also need good food (not sugar or junk), 9 hours (uninterrupted, device free) sleep and a chance to talk to you.  Make sure you are available and keeping lines of communication open.  Approach subjects in a non confrontational  “I noticed that….what do you think?” or “I was wondering what you felt about….”