Exam stress and anxiety in teens: an educational psychologist gives advice to parents and young people on how to cope during this difficult time
Preparing for and sitting exams is a nerve-racking time for many teens hoping to achieve the grades they want for their future career path.
MORE: 11 of the best wellness podcasts you need to listen to
As GCSE and A-Level exams loom, parents may be wondering how they can best help their children combat anxiety around tests, and what to do if the stress affects their day to day lives.
As part of HELLO!’s Mental Health Digital Issue, guest-edited by TV presenter and mental health advocate Scarlett Moffatt, we asked an expert for advice on this important issue.
Below, educational psychologist and founder of Alpine Psychology Limited UK, Dr Frances Greenstreet, shares her top tips…
What is your advice to young people feeling anxious about their exams?
Dr Frances Greenstreet advises: “Know you are not alone and most of your friends will more than likely be feeling the same way. Often underneath the worry is hope; hoping I do myself proud, hoping the revision pays off, hoping I get the grades I need.
“Exam anxiety can feel uncomfortable but accepting these feelings, understanding they are normal in this situation and moving forwards with kindness to yourself will be more helpful than trying to ignore them or make them go away.”
MORE: Scarlett Moffatt admits she wanted to ‘disappear for a while’ after I’m a Celebrity harmed her mental health
What practical techniques can teens use to reduce their anxiety?
“Lots of young people find mindfulness apps such as Headspace useful as a long term pro-active technique. “Or learning a simple routine like the ABC method that can be used anywhere:
A = Accept the feelings as they arise. Notice where the anxiety is in your body. Name the feeling as anxiety/ nervousness/ worry, whatever feels like the best description to you.
B = Breathe in through your nose, pause, then out through your mouth. Try and make your out-breath longer than your in-breath. Repeat at least three times.
C = Compassion for yourself. Create a safe space between your thoughts and the feeling. Use your inner voice to remind yourself, it is ok to feel this feeling, it is only temporary and will pass. You have moved through this before and will do so now.”
MORE: 10 celebrities share small changes they’ve made to improve their mental health
How can parents help their teens cope with pre-exam stress?
“Firstly, recognise your own feelings, hopes, worries and pressures and try not to put these on your child too.
“Help your child plan a realistic revision timetable with time for rest and reset. Time away from revision doing activities that they enjoy and will increase positive emotions is just as important.
“Give extra support where you can, and bring them drinks or their favourite snacks. Write little affirmations to remind them you see their efforts and are proud of them. Find reasons to get them outside and into the fresh air.
“Remind your child (and yourself) that this is a temporary period of intense work. It will not go on forever. Summon every last ounce of empathy, compassion and love to help contain their difficult emotions and ensure they feel supported throughout.”
What if the anxiety is overwhelming or if panic attacks happen?
“If the anxiety is impacting your child’s day to day life or leading to panic attacks then it is important to seek some professional help.
“As a parent, you can discuss your concerns with your GP who may refer your child to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental health Services). Speak to the teacher at your teen’s school who is the Special Educational Needs Coordinator to see what support can be offered in school, or if a referral to a local educational psychology service is possible.
“Also, organisations such as YoungMinds and AnxietyUK also offer lots of advice and support online.”
How can teens cope with extreme nervousness during an exam?
“If during an exam you feel yourself beginning to panic, it can be helpful to create some space between your thoughts and your feelings.
“One way to do this is to take back control of your inner voice (the voice you hear when you’re thinking) using a technique called distanced self-talk.
“You can do this very easily by talking to yourself (in your head) in the third person, as if you are your own sports coach or a caring friend. For example, ‘Claire your heart is racing because you care about this. You feel anxious and that is ok. Claire read the question carefully then breathe. Claire you know you can do this. Start with one question you know. One at a time.’
“Using distanced self-talk helps the brain see the source of stress (exam) not as a threat, but as a challenge that can be overcome, therefore leading to a more positive response.”
When results come in, how can young people cope with disappointment?
“Acknowledge this is how you are feeling and know it is ok if this feeling stays for a while. Don’t try to ignore it or ‘bounce back’ straight away.
“Speak to your teachers/ college/ university and see what your options are for next academic year. Remember you are more than an exam result. There are so many strengths and skills that are important to future employers that cannot be measured in an exam.
“Although on this occasion the outcome was not what you were hoping for, you can choose how to move forwards. Take your new opportunities and find a new path towards your goals.”
How can parents help their teens move on from a stressful exam period?
“There are two great ways to do this,” says Frances.
“Number one: boost positive wellbeing. Encourage your child to engage in things that bring them joy and fulfilment, activities or actions that are meaningful to them and give them a sense of purpose. Encourage your child to stay connected to friends and relationships that matter to them.
“Number two: help your child see the bigger picture beyond the exam and results. Sometimes young people feel their whole life path is determined by exam results and carrying this internal pressure is emotionally exhausting. Remind your child that their self-worth is more than just the exam result they receive.
“Reinforce how their future is full of hope and opportunity whether academic success looms or alternative pathways arise, life is not about straight lines connecting A to B. Sometimes we go round in circles and up and down before finding our point C that brings us real meaning and fulfilment in life.”