Parents want to do their best to support their children at all times, particularly during exam times, but it can be hard to know what and how much to do, especially when they can be grumpy and rude. There are some key things to remember and top tips here.
- Scaffold the young person’s life – this may well be happening anyway, but making sure that the structures and scaffolds of family life are securely in place during this time is important. This means having clear bedtimes, meal times, periods of quiet for studying etc. Routines make children feel safe and secure but supporting the brain and body with regularity is also going to be really helpful at this time. So now is not the time to have house parties, be absent as a parent or suggest all night box-set binges!
- Communication: Think carefully about what you say and how you say things to the young person. For example, try to make sure you always ask how the child is generally and focus on things they value before asking “what are you going to revise today?”. Use open-ended questions (“do you have a plan for how you are going to spend your day?”) rather than closed-ended questions (“are you going to do any revision today or just sit on your phone all day?”, with sarcasm). Show empathy for their situation (“it must be hard to have to work during your holiday period”) rather than disdain (“everyone else in the world does this too, you are not so special”).
- Watch your own emotions: we all want our children to do as well as they can in exams, particularly national exams, when stakes are high. This can raise our own emotions as we feel increasingly anxious about how they will do and frustrated by them not always seeming to do their best. We need to take time out when feeling overwhelmed and not pass on our anxiety or irritation to the young person as this will not help them. Be aware of your own bodily sensations and practice self-regulation and taking time out when feeling stressed. Notice thoughts you have that trigger feelings of stress (“he’s never going to get the right grades at this rate and then won’t get a good job and will end up homeless”). This is time when we can tend to catastrophize and over-generalise. Despite our desire to act when our children are stressed, what we really need to do is be truly responsive and listen to what they need. The more you are able to tune into how they are feeling, the more connected they will feel to you which they need more than ever right now. If a child feels like you are sensitive to their needs they are also more likely to be responsive to your advice.
Most importantly, remember that the results of these exams will not be the only determinant of the child’s success in life. Every child and young person will learn and grow just from taking part in the exams and offering an open space for reflection whatever the outcome is what counts.
Bettina Hohnen, Clinical Psychologist