Learning Points: State exams need not be testing times for teens

Anxiety impacts all of us. As mammals, we are hardwired to it. And it has been key to our survival. 

Without it, we wouldn’t have lasted too long roaming around the dangerous landscape of our early existence. 

However, for teenagers facing the monster of the state exams this summer, anxiety can be all-consuming and can intrude on productive study.

Helping your child manage their stress over the next five weeks will be an invaluable learning curve for them as they move forward into their bright futures.

The Leaving Certificate is one of the most anxiety-provoking events of our lives. 

I dreamt about it for many years after finishing it. It is both physically and mentally exhausting.

And it can feel like a gigantic, insurmountable hurdle, and yet, if you gain a little perspective, you can view it for what it truly is: a summer exam that you can simply do over and over again until you get the outcome you desire. 

So gaining a little perspective is hugely significant if you are going to manage your anxiety. 

When we become overwhelmed with anxiety, it just means that the demands being placed on us exceed our resilience. And resilience is something that you can help your child develop. 

Understanding what it is about the exam that is causing your child to excessively worry is an important first step in supporting them.

How to support your child with exam stress:

The biggest cause of stress in the lead-up to exams is the level of preparation

Often, students feel they are caught in a futile exercise, because they may have left it too late to study. 

I always tell them, at this point, five weeks out, that whatever they learn now they will remember in the exam. 

So, devising a sensible study timetable, and putting it into practice, is an important first step in alleviating exam stress. 

Often, just getting started is the most difficult task. 

Don’t do a timetable for your child — you don’t want to disempower them — but, together, draft one that is workable and which will help them to feel they are being productive. 

That feeling of getting something done can really diminish exam stress. So, help your child to get started.

Picture: INPHO
Picture: INPHO

Down time

It is vitally important that your child has relaxing down time, when they do not think about the exam or the study they have to do. 

I have worked with many students over the years who achieved top grades in the Leaving Cert and they all shared a commonality: the ability to relax when they were not studying.

And it is harder in today’s world to find that space free from worry, because of technological devices. 

Support your child by helping them to have productive down time. 

Going to the gym or meeting friends, or going for a run, are all very positive pursuits to help them forget about the exam for a while. 

And they might need your help in achieving that down time, so make sure that you guide them.

Ask yourself: are they trying to prove something to someone?

In my experience, working with stressed teenagers, this is a very important aspect to think about if you are to truly help them manage their anxiety. 

Often, teenagers come to view the exam as something that can help them change or ameliorate a particular negative narrative that they have been labouring with. 

When teenagers come to my clinic for help with their anxiety, I ask: ‘when you achieve the results you want, who is the first person you ring?’ ‘What does that result tell that person?’ 

These are two significant questions, because they generally elucidate the negative relationship the child has developed with both the parent and the exam.

Is your child struggling with perfectionism?

I hear this more and more in my clinic: families really having a difficult time, because the teenager in the house is caught in this futile pursuit of attaining the perfect result and everyone is walking on eggshells. 

This is not conducive to a healthy environment for study. 

And your child needs help managing their expectations of themselves. 

Perfectionism is usually brought on by low self-esteem. Try to understand why your child feels they need to be perfect.

They will need to manage this going forward in their life — it is instrumental to their future happiness that they learn that perfection really doesn’t exist.

University choice is something that causes huge stress in families at this time of year

Students often feel they have to go to one particular university because all their friends are going there and this places huge stress on them. 

And nothing could be further from the truth. 

There are plenty of universities that offer wonderful courses and, if you have a university in mind, it’s important to know that you can go there later, as a post grad, if that is what you want. 

Help your child see beyond their often-myopic lens.

Exam stress is not necessarily a bad thing. 

Stress can help us to focus and become driven towards a desirable outcome. 

However, when it impacts on our ability to function, we must take a step back and look at what the exam has come to mean for our children. 

Over the next five weeks, help your child to manage themselves as they prepare for the Leaving Certificate. 

It will stand to them long into the future.

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