parents guide to surviving exam stress

Coping with January exam stress: parents’ survival guide

Tips on coping with (your/your teen’s) exam stress

We know, we know. We feel your pain at the abrupt end to blissful days of watching Love Actually or Die Hard 2 in your pyjamas while consuming your bodyweight in mince pies. It’s never the easiest holiday from which to return to grafting. But now the festive season is over, young people with important exams looming need to power through the early January blues and swing swiftly into revision action, especially if they’re going straight into prelims (or mocks) this term.

Parents need to be one step ahead at this time of year, offering gentle (and maybe sometimes not so gentle) encouragement and support. Now could be a good time to chat about a few New Year’s study resolutions, and your son’s or daughter’s hopes for the months ahead.

You may even want to make some resolutions of your own for supporting your teenager.

planning to avoid exam stress

Here’s our prelim/mock exam stress survival guide for parents as 2019 gets underway:

  • Striking a balance

Most parents will want to steer a middle course between being a ‘helicopter’ mum or dad, who organises every second of their child’s life, and taking a laissez-faire, hands-off approach whereby you just let them get on with it.

Nagging is unlikely to get you far; equally, if you say nothing at all then precisely nothing may happen. Striking a balance may mean, for example, suggesting they devise a revision timetable and then looking at their draft with them and offering constructive comments, but not actually doing it for them.


In addition to applying gentle pressure as and when you feel appropriate, you also need to issue regular reminders that no one can give more than their best, because while some teenagers may affect a very convincing outward appearance of not being ‘bovvered’ about imminent exams, the inner reality might be very different.

  • Discussing revision techniques

Chat about an array of study techniques – from note-taking and mind mapping to flash cards and flowcharts. Or get your teen to summarise a topic over four sides of A4 paper, then suggest they reduce it to one side before putting keywords/bullet points on a file card for final revision.

Spending the weeks before an exam gradually distilling the vast quantity of information for each subject down to a few crib cards to be read the day/night before the exam is very useful exercise. Not only does it help learners focus on the most important facts, it also allows them to feel more in control of the revision process.

Testing can also be helpful. Get them to talk or write about a topic they need to cover for one of their exams for two minutes, or test their knowledge of the topic verbally. If it’s a subject you don’t know well yourself, ask them to explain it to you. The process of explaining information to someone else has the added benefit of clarifying and consolidating it in the explainer’s brain or flagging up areas they still need to work on.

For subjects such as history, where exam answers involve writing essays, this skill also needs to be honed – ideally via past papers.  These can generally be downloaded online from exam board websites such as the SQA in Scotland and AQA, EdExcel and OCR (among others) south of the border.

  • Motivation

Timetables and techniques are all good and well, but they’re not enough. Your son or daughter may need to be constantly motivated to keep working. This can be done by urging regular breaks and mixing up subjects, chatting things through when they’re stuck, or getting them to try the ‘Pomodoro’ focusing technique.

Encourage them to make a list of topics to learn which can then be satisfyingly ticked off, or offer a reward for when it’s all over. (NB: We’d suggest keeping rewards modest – for example, a trip to the cinema.)

  • Stress management

It’s often worth returning to back-to-basics parenting techniques for exam time. That means seemingly obvious things such as ensuring your young person gets sufficient physical exercise, water and sleep, eats sensibly with proper meal breaks and has enough time to unwind before bedtime (preferably minus electronic gadgetry, although realistically that is becoming increasingly difficult in the 21st century!).

Of course, no matter how much (or little) revision your teen has done in advance, when it comes to exam day itself, short of making sure they know where they have to be and when, encouraging them to have a decent breakfast and checking (subtly!) that they’ve everything they need with them, there’s really not much more you can do – apart from being there to provide moral support when it’s all over…


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