Parenting, Students, School and exams, Children & Adolescents

04 June, 2019

Aiming for top mental health marks

As students across Ireland prepare for state exams, we share tips for parents on supporting emotional wellbeing during exam season.

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, clinical psychologist and Chief Executive Officer of St Patrick's Mental Health Services (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 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."

He added:

"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”.

Getting through exams

We've shared five tips below which you might find helpful in managing young people’s mental wellbeing at exam time.

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. Encourage them to take 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 making 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!

More tips and resources for parents

We have lots of information and resources for parents to help you support your children and teeangers' mental health and wellbeing.

More tips and resources for parents