We have come to the time of year when many young people are facing exams or tests at school, with varying degrees of importance and significance for their future. For some, this will be the stepping stone to the next part of the educational journey, and for all it’s likely to be a pressured and overwhelming time. The time away from school will have had a profound effect on many children, now is the time to remind them that what matters most: their mental wellbeing.
At Fegans, we work with a lot of young children experiencing stress and anxiety, and it’s particularly heightened at this time of year with performance related concern as they face this educational test, which often feels like a test of who they are. We can use our empathy to think of how stressful it feels when we’re coming up to an appraisal or a performance review at our own work, and use that empathy to let gentleness and connection guide us. Yes, their behaviour may suffer during a stress peak, but it’s important to do what you can to respond from calmness, and to invite them to join you in feeling calm, rather than you joining them in emotional chaos.
With that in mind, here are a few tips to support your children at this time:
Keep it in perspective
Yes, of course exams are important. But everyone involved needs to remember it’s not the end of the world if there’s a hiccup, and that there’s almost always another chance.
For children and young people, that performance in exams can often be very closely linked to their own sense of self-worth. Throughout these times, it’s important to reassure children of all ages that they are loved simply for who they are, and that no bad grade can keep them from your affection. It’s easy to forget to remind them of this, as we think it’s so obvious. But children need to hear these things often, as a way to balance the natural desire held for them, to want to do the very best they can. Reassure them they are safe, they are loved, and they will continue to have value and worth to you, no matter how well or badly things go on the day.
Remember, also, that things are a bit different now to when we were young; we can still remember a time when a job was for life and people largely only had one career. There is now a lot more flexibility, career retraining, and second chances, so even if they don’t succeed now there are plenty of opportunities to do so in the future.
Help manage their expectations
As well as managing your own expectations of their performance, be on hand to help your children manage their own expectations; in the way that they are preparing for the exams, and also their achievement in their exams. Working every waking minute of the day, or expecting grades significantly higher than their capabilities, could well be detrimental to their emotional and mental wellbeing. You are uniquely placed to know your child’s strengths and weaknesses, so you can support them in the areas where they need a little assistance, and trust them in the area so they have previously shown themselves to be competent. Offer praise, encouragement and cheerleading during this time, and seek to work in partnership with them – it helps them to feel empowered and appreciated (a good state to be in during exams!), and is an opportunity to pool your expertise.
Encourage good work habits
There is no value to be found in working every hour that is sent. Your children may benefit from you supporting them in working out a healthy work structure. Research has shown that working from between 35-45 minutes at a time is the optimum length of time for concentration, and that needs to be balanced by a short 10-15 minute break. Stepping away from screens, getting some fresh air, stretching their legs, and having a hydration break will all be useful ways to increase their work efficiency, and general wellbeing.
Remember the building blocks
Again, when it comes to the real basics, our children (and us) can forget the vital need for our emotional wellbeing building blocks. Make sure that your child is getting enough good food, enough water, and enough sleep. Children and teenagers need up to 12 hours of sleep at night, so sitting at the computer screen until the small hours can actually be counterproductive. Whilst revision is important, so is restoration.
You may have noticed that lots of revision is done at the computer screen now… That means that restoration time does need to be screen limited. That can be a difficult boundary to enforce with children and teenagers, so work in partnership with them to agree an amount of screen time each day that you both think is a reasonable compromise. Their little brains are getting a big work out at the moment, and they need time to restore themselves!
We often see a rise in the use of energy drinks, caffeine tablets, and other stimulants at this time of year. However, this can have a counterproductive effect on studying, as it can interrupt their concentration and energy levels, and also inhibit sleep; not to mention their digestive health (and feeling uncomfortable during revision and exams is definitely not helpful).
Free time isn’t laziness
We know that pressure is high at this time of year, so sometimes when you see your child or teenager lounging about, you can think that they’re not working hard enough. It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s important to remember that they need to build in free time – structured studying has to be balanced with unstructured free time. Sometimes your child may need encouragement to see the value of this unstructured time; a joint internet search of healthy study habits together can be a useful reminder.
A useful analogy to share with them is that human beings are basically machines. We need fuel, and we also need to switch our engine off every now and again. Otherwise, we risk overheating! On any long-term journey in a machine, comfort breaks and fuel fill ups would be an accepted and necessary part of the journey. Humans are no different.
Make time for your own self care
You can’t pour from an empty cup. Your children need more from you at this time, for sure, but to be able to give more you need to be able to have more fuel in the tank. Make sure that you aren’t running on empty – make time for a phone call to a trusted friend, coffee with a book, going for a walk in the sunshine, or an extra long (uninterrupted? Unlikely!) bath.
Connection is important
It can be tempting to lock them in their room and get them to study every day. However, it is important for them to maintain their social connections, and it can be a really useful way for them to let off steam. When possible, also find ways to invite them into the family social life; perhaps, watching a movie one night with popcorn, or going for a family walk, or a coffee break together. Or how about all going out for dinner? Don’t just save the treats for the results, as this reinforces that they have more value when they achieve more. Let them know that their wellbeing and enjoyment of life is still important when they’re striving for success, as well as when they’re achieving it.