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Getting a Handle on Exam Stress

Updated: Mar 21

Tips for helping yourself and your teen.


Handling Exam Stress in Teenagers

To this day, I occasionally wake up in the morning rattled by an exam or school assignment related dream. These dreams revolve around themes of complete unpreparedness, running out of time, lost or incomplete homework, and evoke feelings of panic and stress.

With high school exams in a few short weeks, your student may be feeling REAL stress (not just the imagined kind). Whether overwhelm, anxiety, hope, fear, optimism, or some other emotion is driving their "exam" state of mind, the pressure is on. Even the most confident and capable of students can feel pressure to uphold their grades.

While a little stress can be a good thing, providing the motivational push needed to apply oneself, too much stress is hard to deal with and becomes counter-productive.

And when exam stress trickles into the home environment and affects interactions with mom, dad, and siblings, it becomes a prickly time of year for all.

Keep in mind that exam related stress in your household may not emanate solely from your student! Exam time can trigger unsettling emotions in parents too. From memories of ones own exam taking stress, to frustration with their teen's study habits, to hopes and dreams for a teenager's future that are dependent on good grades, even the most well-balanced parents may feel some pressure. How does this manifest itself in your interactions with your teenager?

Now is a good time to take a step back and objectively assess:

  1. How your child is coping,

  2. Who is feeling stress: you, your teenager or both,

  3. If your expectations are helping or hindering,

  4. If exam related interactions are helpful or harmful,

  5. How you can best support them.

You can add to their stress, or you can help alleviate it. Here are some suggestions:

Talk to your teenager. Communication is everything. How do you know how they feel about their workload and upcoming exams if you don't ask? Let them steer the conversation - be prepared to listen, be non-reactive, and offer encouragement.

Be clear on who owns the stress. Stress is contagious. If a parent is feeling stressed, they are likely setting the tone for their teenager too. Is your teenager stressed out and impacting you, or vice versa? If the latter, pull yourself together and present the calm, collected, rational, and supportive version of yourself. This is their experience, not yours, don't make it about you.

Consider how you offer your support. Focus on helping your teenager establish reliable study habits that are based on patterns and self-initiated rules (which hold constant) versus motivation (which fluctuates). Asking questions like "Shouldn't you be studying?", or minimizing concerns, e.g. "Don't worry, you'll be fine" only feed the stress frenzy.

Show unconditional love. Teenagers crave their parents love and approval, even if they don't always show it. Making your love contingent of the outcome of an exam is a dangerous game to play. "I'll be so proud of you if you get an A on your physics exam". If they don't get the A, then what? You have planted the seed for feelings of unworthiness or rejection. If an A feels unrealistic and out of reach, then what? They may not even try.

Give them "no matter what" love. "The effort you're putting into studying for your physics exam is admirable, I'm proud of you." The principle of focusing on effort over outcome is based on the idea that effort is what ignites a person's ability and turns it into an accomplishment.

For more specifics on managing exam stress, establishing reliable study habits, and creating a supportive environment at home, check my instagram feed @maxinefishercoaching, I'll be sharing more over the next week or two.

Good luck to all this exam season, parents and teenagers alike.

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