Exams and academic performance can be really stressful for young people and put additional pressure on their mental health. Exam anxiety was a serious struggle for me, but something I learnt to manage over time. So today I’m going to share my top tips to help your child cope with exam anxiety.
#1 Helping them to prepare
What I found really helpful was to make sure I was fully prepared for an exam. This included having my notes in order and starting revision early. Spreading out the revision made me feel less rushed and less panicked in the lead up to the exam. Maybe try recommending to your teen not to leave revision until the last minute as this can often cause extra stress.
They might appreciate you helping them to get small things ready for the exam, such as a pencil case or a nice pen, or helping them work out where the exam is located, so the small things don’t add to your teen’s anxiety. Sometimes having even the smallest thing go wrong on the day of the exam can make your teen feel out of control of the situation. Your teen may want you to drive them to the exam, and making sure to arrive early can be really beneficial, especially if one of their concerns is that they will be late to the exam. Getting there early also means your teen can assess and settle in the situation and get used to being in that environment. Feeling like I had full control over everything that happened on the day made me feel less anxious about the exam itself.
As much as I appreciated having one of my parents around to help, I also appreciated being given space just before the exam, it helped me feel less overwhelmed. So perhaps try and gauge how much support and reassurance your teen wants. Also, make sure to check in on them after the exam as well, because sometimes this can be a very stressful time if they are still in an anxious state.
#2 Practising exams and knowing what to expect
Something I found useful was to go through an exam paper like it was the real thing. That way they can get used to the format of the test and mentally prepare exactly what is going to happen. Then when your teen gets to the real exam their body and brain is normalised to the exam experience and therefore the anxiety response will be less strong. Try practising in pretend exam conditions with your teen so they realise that nothing too scary is going to happen. Another good tip that has occasionally helped me is to try and trick your brain into ignoring the fact that you’re actually in an exam. So blocking out all of the surroundings, and pretending you are at home, doing a practice exam, can help you feel just as calm as you would then.
#3 Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques
Something which I recommend, for all types of anxiety, is to learn breathing exercises. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but just knowing how to control and concentrate on your breathing can be really reassuring. A lot of my symptoms of exam nerves are physical, such as a raised heart rate and nausea, so by breathing deeply my heart rate slowed back down and I felt much calmer. Other relaxation techniques you may want to try out with your teen, include mindfulness or muscle relaxation to reduce muscle tension in the body. It can trick your brain into thinking you are calm, and therefore you feel calmer.
#4 Maintaining a good sleeping and eating schedule
Another important tip includes helping your teen maintain their well-being around exam season. Remind them to get a good night’s sleep and not to do revision late at night, as this can cause even more stress. It is really important to remind them to break and unwind during exams because it can be beneficial to their mental health to have a good rest-work balance. Additionally, making sure they eat enough to have enough energy for the exam is important. I particularly struggled with this aspect because I never felt hungry before my exams. In some cases, getting your teen to eat anything they feel like before an exam, is better than nothing (or even having a big, energising meal the night before is worth a try if they struggle to eat anything the day of the exam).
#5 Asking for help from your teen’s school
Schools can often put in place special adjustments to make exams easier for those who struggle with anxiety. For example, they can offer extra time if their anxiety is costing them time in the exam. They can get permission to go into the exam hall first or last if this is something that would benefit them. In my experience, the large, daunting exam halls triggered me to feel uncomfortable so schools can sometimes make arrangements to have your teen sit in a certain place, or even in a different or smaller room. If your child is neurodivergent (e.g. ADHD or dyslexia) they may be given even more help such as frequent breaks, but you’ll usually have to request this. So it is definitely worth a conversation with someone at your teen’s school to see what you can do together to help your teen.
#6 Emotional support and reassurance
Having my parents aware of my anxiety around exams really helped me because I knew that there was always someone there in case I did need them. It is really helpful for your teen just to know that their loved ones will support them no matter what grade they get and that they will still be there if it goes badly. Taking this pressure off your teen can significantly ease their anxious thoughts. They may well already be putting a lot of pressure on themselves for exams, so don't need you to add to this. When my own parents understood this, it actually made a big difference for me.
#7 Reassuring them that a bit of nerves is normal
Anxiety can be a vicious cycle because people with anxiety often worry about the fact that they are worried which makes them even more anxious. For example, in exams, knowing that my anxiety may affect how well I can do made me feel even worse. So make sure to take the pressure off your teen by reassuring them that a bit of nerves is completely normal and expected. Maybe suggest for them to try channelling a bit of this nervous energy into answering the questions, but this doesn’t work for everyone depending on how anxious they are. In the past, I have found myself putting all my concentration into getting it over and done with (using my adrenaline to my advantage) and focusing on the fact that the anxious state never lasts forever.
In summary, learning how to help your child or teen cope with exam anxiety can be really useful, especially because of all the pressure that is linked to their test performance. I have always found it frustrating that even though I was a very capable student, I was at a disadvantage because of the way the education system measures intelligence and performance. However, more recently, due to the increasing awareness of exam stress and anxiety, there has been some positive policy changes (in the UK) towards taking these issues more seriously.
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Resource Development Executive