Tips for parents to support positive mental well-being during exams
As almost 125,000 students across the country begin their Junior and Leaving Certificates this week, St Patrick’s Mental Health Services (SPMHS) is encouraging parents to take simple steps to look after young people’s emotional wellbeing during the exam period.
While increased pressure and a sense of the unknown can escalate anxiety and stress for young people sitting exams, experiencing these feelings is entirely normal, and using proactive tools to manage them can, in fact, be helpful during intense situations like the state exams.
Paul Gilligan, Chief Executive Officer of SPMHS, says, “As parents, a day never passes that we don’t worry about or for our children. This can be especially true around exam times, which often represent a major stressful life events for our children. Raising young people to be emotionally healthy and resilient is one of the most important tasks we undertake. It is vital that we first and foremost support young people’s positive mental health and equip them with the tools to manage their emotional wellbeing, rather than focusing solely on their academic achievement”.
Dr Colman Noctor, Adolescent Psychotherapist at SPMHS, advises parents that empowering young people to accept and control their stress levels during exams has a long-lasting impact. He says, “With anxiety levels running high at exam time, we may intuitively think that downplaying stress and eliminating all triggers is the best support for young people. However, acknowledging their anxiety and finding ways to cope with it is a much more effective solution”.
Five tips which can help with managing young people’s mental wellbeing at exam time include:
1) Allow exam stress to be experienced and expressed.
Try to avoid exam stress from becoming ‘distress’ or ‘panic’. You can do this by acknowledging the feeling the young person is having and introducing something helpful to address the feeling, but not dismissing it. Introduce context, reality and perspective into the conversation.
2) Pick your battles.
High stress can trigger irritability. Your teenager may be unreasonably cranky at the moment. Deep breaths and let it pass. There’ll be plenty time for apologies and negotiation in a few weeks.
3) Don’t downplay distress by saying it’s no big deal.
This is a big deal to the young person. These statements don’t provide reassurance: they provide feelings of being misunderstood and invalidated.
4) Provide space to talk, be approachable, be available – but don’t become a nagging supporter.
Invite your child to speak and seize the moments when they do, but try not to pressure them to talk to you. This can be counter-productive. When they do speak about their worries, be kind, listen intently, acknowledge their stress and sit with them. Avoid fixing, minimizing or talk of repeating…
5) Give them the support they need, rather than what you think they need.
If your child has under-prepared, being reminded of this ahead of the exam will achieve nothing productive. Accept the ‘we are where we are’ position and try to support them to perform as optimally as they can by encouraging good, sleep, exercise, nutrition – and multiple cups of sugary tea.
Also, always remember that the exams and the anxiety which can come with them will pass: you’re nearly there!
THE LEAVING CERT SURVIVAL GUIDE
Ahead of exam season, Dr Colman Noctor took part in a three-part series of Fm104 podcasts for students, giving helpful tips and advice on how you can look after your mental health, manage expectations, and deal with pressure you might feel from others when sitting your exams.