Mental Health: How Parents and Students Can Deal With Exam Stress

March 15, 2017 by Minerva Tutors,

A report last week revealed that it is not just the mental health of students that suffers because of exam stress, but parents too. What can you do to help alleviate the anxiety of another stressful exam season?


How bad is exam stress for parents?

In the survey from BBC Radio 5 Live, encompassing 830 parents of children in the 11-18 bracket, 24% said their mental health has suffered as a result of stress related to their children’s exams. Other findings included:

  • 42% say not knowing how to help their children with revision made them feel that they were ‘not good enough’ as parents
  • 31% said they’d offered their children money as a revision incentive to boost grades
  • 52% said they’d like more help and advice on how to support their children through revision
  • Another frequent concern for parents was worrying about whether or not a child’s revision time was actually being used well for effective revision.

This all suggests that there are plenty of good reasons for parents to worry around exam time, and drive up their stress levels. This can only be worsened by the fact the UK’s schoolchildren remain the most frequently tested in the world (11+, 13+, GCSE, AS Level and A Level, for starters), with other OECD countries employing regular testing that is less intrusive, frequent and comprehensive than Britain’s.

No wonder the stress is reaching parents as well.


How can parents combat their own exam stress?

In the BBC article, clinical psychologist Dr Anna Colton warned against parents conflating their own stress with their child’s. Remember – you are not taking these exams. You will not have to sit down for two hours and calculate moles, discuss how a poet has used imagery, or debate the benefits of price elasticity of demand. You won’t have to do 5 hours of exams in one day, with only 40 minutes between the end of your English Literature paper and your French oral. Of course you are invested in your child’s future, and you want them to do as well as possible, but worrying about the material, and communicating that worry to your child, won’t help anyone.  

Certainly, it’s worth remembering that however stressful they feel at the time, exam results aren’t the be-all and end-all. There are many possible ways into excellent universities and subsequent careers that don’t necessarily require stellar exam results, and the assessment-heavy emphasis of the British education system doesn’t suit every student.   

Dr Colton stressed that parents would be well-advised not channel their own hopes and dreams into their children, acknowledging that the education they are in is very different from the one that parents themselves experienced.


And how can parents help their children with exam stress?

The best help a parent can give (on the assumption you don’t know your child’s whole A Level physics syllabus and don’t fancy sitting the exam on their behalf) is to provide a calm, helpful and supportive environment at home. Be available to talk if they are stressed out, and willing to put things into perspective.

One of the issues teenagers struggle with most is organisation and time management, so if you can help them make a revision timetable, even better. It’s better to keep each session relatively short, from 30-45 minutes, with short breaks in between, than to try and work on something for hours on end, and inevitably end up losing focus and getting distracted.  

Encourage them to focus on the subjects and topics they are less confident about, as there is little benefit to going over material they already know. Often, it can help to get out of the house to do some revision, such as in a local library, and many students benefit from working in a small group. This way, they can learn from their peers on material they are struggling with, and help get other people up to standard on areas where they are more confident. Although working with others can be distracting, many also find that it’s easier to maintain focus with other people working towards the same goal, and you can keep each other away from other distractions.

The exam revision period is not a time for students to suddenly drop everything else in their lives, and spend 100% of the time working. This will likely lead to burnout, drops in concentration, and time spent ‘revising’ that is actually frustrating and unproductive. Practicing meditation and mindfulness has been shown to improve focus and decrease anxiety, and even a brisk ten minute walk between revision sessions can help improve concentration and energy levels. It is healthy and beneficial to still exercise (as we discussed in last week’s blog about the links between physical and mental health) and engage in social and extracurricular activities. Students can ‘earn’ this relaxation time by revising efficiently in the day, and then enjoy it guilt-free having already done some productive work.   


Do you need professional help?

It is completely natural and expected for a pupil’s stress levels to rise during the exam period, but certain behaviours cannot be accounted for. This article can help identify when your child may be in need of professional help, or behaving outside the realms of what might be expected as a result of added stress. However, more often than not, the likelihood is that this will subside once the exams are over, rather than proving the result of a more serious underlying issue.

Mental health charity Young Minds emphasises that “Exam stress in particular can cause problems with eating, sleeping, anger and anxiety levels. If a child is already experiencing emotional problems or mental health difficulties, exam stress can be the last straw”. So if you think your child may be struggling with something more serious, it’s important to be supportive and sensitive if you choose to bring it up with them.


For more information, check out this article from Youth Connect for 8 tips about how students can deal with exam stress. You can also have a look at the website for Young Minds, who have advice about dealing with school and exam stress, as well as many other mental health issues young people will face.

In terms of revision, Minerva can provide expert tutors in any subject at GCSE and A Level, for one-on-one tuition or in small groups, to help alleviate some of that exam stress. We also work with experts in children’s mental health, and can help provide advice on fitness and nutrition, life coaching and mentoring – just call the Temple of Minerva on 0208 819 3276.


By David Bard


David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about everything that’s trending in education.

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