How to de-stress your teenager ahead of school exams

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Priory's Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg explores the ways in which parents can help calm their children ahead of exams - and even use some of the tips themselves in their daily work life.

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, 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 to help reduce your child's exam stress

  • Remind your child it's normal to experience strong emotions such as sadness, anger and anxiety, but these don't last forever
  • Young people often 'catastrophise', causing them to believe they're going to fail. Help them look at the true evidence of their hard work, so they can challenge irrational thinking
  • 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
  • Remind your child that you love them unconditionally
  • Encourage them to talk to you about how they're feeling and explain you have felt like that too in times of stress
  • Don't continually put pressure on your child to revise. Remind them that they'll feel satisfied if they know they've tried their best, and to achieve this they need a healthy balance of revision and relaxation
  • 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
  • Make sure your child turns off all screens an hour before they go to bed, as looking at a screen will reduce the likelihood of them falling asleep and getting a good night's sleep
  • Encourage them to exercise for 20 minutes each day; it will help to improve their mood and sleep pattern
  • If your child is suffering intense stress, distract and divert. There are things you can do to help their emotions change quickly:
    • Watch a scary film together, read a funny book, watch humorous clips on the internet, or 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 and 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 your child is experiencing intense emotions and is struggling with various symptoms of stress, Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg suggests: "Tell your child to hold some ice really tightly (it feels like it's burning but won't do any damage). As the ice melts, they might feel their tension melt away. If the anxiety doesn't seem to improve, and anxiety feels outside the normal range in severity, or length, get help via your GP."

You can visit your GP to talk through your concerns and worries for your child, and they may refer them for expert stress treatment at Priory.

"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 that there's help available."

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