Managing exam anxiety- when it affects the whole family!
As we enter the home stretch in South Africa for the Matrics of 2018, there is often an increase in anxiety affecting not just the teens, but also the parents and family surrounding them. This is one of those times where some anxiety is to be expected given the emphasis placed on these exams, but what about those who aren’t actually writing the exams yet are still feeling the effects?!
We know that anxiety can be difficult for a teenager to manage alone –it often overflows and affects those closest to them, so don’t be surprised if this exam period leaves you, the parent, feeling more stressed out and tense than your teenager! My top 5 tips for managing exam anxiety for teens and parents are:
Routine: During exam time do not give up on all rules, expectations or responsibilities you have set for your teen. While you can make adjustments due to their study requirements, it is important that you keep up some consistency. This creates containment for their anxiety and also encourages the teen to learn to balance their needs with other expectations of them. It also takes some of the pressure off – while these exams are important, they are not the ‘be all and end all’ and the results are not the sole reflection of their abilities. Also, maintaining some of your normal routine and boundaries will reduce anxiety for the rest of the family
Encourage proper self-care: It is important that your teen gets enough sleep, proper nutrition, takes breaks and has adequate exercise. Anxiety is fueled when we stop taking care of ourselves, and while it may be tempting (or feel necessary) to forget everything else to try cram in some studying, it can actually have a negative effect on their well-being. It is about maintaining a healthy balance and even more so when under stress. Some teens prefer to study at night, while others prefer early mornings – its ok for their sleep cycle to differ from yours, as long as they are getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep. And make sure the rest of the family are practicing self-care too!
Discuss coping strategies: Before crunch time hits, ask them what support they would like from you when it comes and encourage them to think of helpful ways to reduce their stress. You can prepare a list of options to help remind them when the anxiety start climbing. These strategies can include belly breathing, going for a walk, listening to a favourite song, blowing bubbles (yes all ages will find it relaxing), drinking a cup of tea/hot chocolate in silence or a tight embrace. Parents can make use of the strategies too and model how they are managing their own stress.
Listening but not getting sucked into the story: With anxiety, it is easy to get stuck in “all or nothing” thinking such as “I will never pass this exam”, “I answered every question wrong”, “I have totally messed up’, or “I have not studied at all”. It’s not helpful to dismiss concerns by saying everything will be fine, but what parents can do is listen to their concerns and acknowledge how hard it may feel at that moment. In their panic, they need to be reminded that it won’t always feel like this and that while it can feel overwhelming, you are here for them, no matter what. This can also help reduce parents’ anxiety in remembering that your teen’s life will not solely be defined by these exams.
Control: For many parents, their own anxiety can skyrocket during these exams because of the lack of control they have over the situation. How much the teen studies, when they study, how they apply themselves and what the outcome will be are some of the big things you can’t control. And that can be terrifying! Nagging can often be a result of your anxiety, but it is not helpful to the teen – it only puts more pressure on them or makes them resist anything you may have to offer. As discussed above, there are some things that you can do to support and guide them and will have already done many things in the years leading up to this that will have a positive impact, but now, you have to take a step back and let them fly.
It’s not easy, for you or them but by helping them manage the stress and anxiety these exams bring, you are helping them master important coping tools for life. And that I believe is far more valuable than any maths equation or history date!
If you are interested in Talya Ressel running a workshop for parents or young people at your school or organization, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org