How to de-stress your teenager: help for parents ahead of school exams

It is one of the most stressful times in your child's life (and yours too). With exam season looming, Priory's Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg has drawn up a list of ways parents can help calm their children - and even use some of the tips themselves in their daily work life.

As Medical Director of the Priory Woodbourne Hospital and clinical director of Priory's Wellbeing Centres, Dr Van Zwanenberg says: 'Every child has stressful situations to cope with, including arguments with friends, bullying, and disputes with parents. However, many are also struggling with huge exam pressures and stress right now, and when the exam stress ends, the stress of waiting for results begins. These worries can't be prevented but young people and parents can learn to cope in a healthier way.'

Top Tips for parents to reduce exam stress

  1. Remind your child it's normal to experience strong emotions such as sadness, anger, fright and anxiety, but these don't last forever.
  2. Young people are often 'catastrophising'; they believe they will fail spectacularly. Help them look at the true evidence regarding their hard work, so they can challenge irrational thinking.
  3. Help children 'problem solve' and form a plan so that even if their results are not what they hope for, there are options and a future.
  4. Remind your child you love them unconditionally.
  5. Encourage them to talk to you about how they are feeling and explain you have felt like that too in times of stress.
  6. Do not continually put pressure on your child to revise. Remind them that they will feel satisfied if they know they have tried their best, and to achieve this they need a healthy balance of revision and relaxation.
  7. Let your child know they can always contact a supportive charity such as ChildLine or the Samaritans anonymously by telephone or via a web chat if they need a confidential discussion.
  8. Make sure your child turns off all screens an hour before they go to bed, as looking  at a screen will switch off the body’s method of getting to sleep.
  9. Encourage them to exercise vigorously for 20 minutes each day; it will help improve mood and sleep pattern.
  10. If your child is suffering intense stress, distract and divert. There are things you as a parent can do to help their emotions change quickly:
  • Watch a scary film together, read a funny book, watch humorous clips on the internet, look at old photos of yourself or them as a baby
  • Encourage your child to ‘stop their thought train and get off it’.  Encourage them to build a brick wall, metaphorically, between themselves and their stressful thoughts. Urge them not to think about their exam worries except for short periods, say 10 minutes morning and night. (This is not suggesting they don’t revise, but that they block out the worry.)
  • Get your child to think of a relaxing memory as a safe place to go to in their head. Ask them to describe it to you in detail, including the sounds, smells, lights, textures, the conversations, the emotions they remember. This can help them relax and distract them from their worries, and, with practice, they can take themselves back there in their head at times of stress.

Additional support

If children have intense emotions, Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg suggests: 'tell your child to hold some ice really tightly (it feels like it is burning but will not do damage). As the ice melts they might feel their tension melt away. If the anxiety does not seem to improve, and anxiety feels outside the normal range in severity, or length, get help via your GP. Your doctor can refer your child to a psychiatrist and having brief therapeutic intervention can make a significant difference in a short period. Medical experts can also liaise with schools and recommend extra time in the exam for your child or suggest they sit exams in a smaller room with fewer peers. Remind yourself and your child - there is help available.'

Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Edmund Street, Birmingham is to start offering mental health services for children and adolescents from May.

It will employ qualified psychiatrists and therapists specialising in a wide range of conditions such as anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The Centre will also offer family support to help keep a young person well at times of difficulty such as divorce or parental illness.

For more details on the full range of Priory Services, including Child and Adolescent Support, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to make an enquiry.