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Managing results anxiety following coronavirus exam cancellations

Priory Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, offers advice and support for parents whose children are worrying about their results due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Many young people are worried about how the coronavirus lockdown will affect their GCSE and A-Level results. As a parent, there are a number of things that you can do to help your child, particularly if their anxiety is starting to impact on their day-to-day functioning or enjoyment.

Teaching your child coping strategies

Distraction techniques for the early warning signs of worry

Explain to your child that it’s quite normal for them to be a little bit worried about their results. We all worry about things at different times in our lives. But if they say that their worries are starting to preoccupy their thoughts, affect their sleep or impact their mood, work with your child to teach them healthy coping strategies so that they can better cope with their stress.

Talk to them about the early warning signs of worry. Some young people may find that they bite their nails or chew the inside of their cheek. Others can’t stop pacing up and down, are unable to concentrate or get a bit irritable.

Then, explain that when they start to notice these early warning signs, they need to try and distract themselves with something so that they don’t spend the rest of the day feeling anxious. Ask them what makes them happy. They may say playing with their dog, spending time with their sibling, going for a run or speaking to their friends. Work with them to make a list of these activities, which they can then use to distract themselves when they feel the early warning signs of anxiety.

Ways to help your child to stop ruminating

If your child finds that they can’t stop worrying - even when they’re doing something that they usually enjoy - they might need more help.

Talk to them about how their worries are a little like a plant. If they ‘feed’ their worries by continuing to think about them, they are likely to grow and grow. But if they ignore them and don’t give them any attention, these worries are likely to wither away instead. Also, explain that worries only tend to be helpful if you can actually do something about them. Your child can’t do anything to change their exam results at this moment in time, so worrying is just something that will ruin their ability to enjoy the here and now.

If they are struggling to stop feeling worried, encourage them to engage in mental activities that will completely fill their mind. For example, they could recite the alphabet backwards or count down from one thousand in threes or sevens. These activities - which you really have to focus on – will give them a brief break from their worries, making it more likely that they will then be able to go off and do something else to distract them from their anxieties.

Discuss the ‘bigger picture’ with your child

Remind them that they have options in life

Many young people worry because they think they only have one path in life. They think that they have to get their grades because if they don’t, they won’t be able to do the apprenticeship, course or job they want to do. This can cause them to catastrophise and believe that they’re not going to achieve anything in life.

To stop them from doing this, sit down with your child and talk about what will happen if they don’t get the results they want. Remind them that it won’t be the end of the world. They can go back and study at a later date or follow a different path. Remind them that not everyone is academic and it would be a boring world if everyone was the same.

Talk to them about the options that are available to them if they don’t get the grades that they would like to get. By having a Plan A and a Plan B, this can be really comforting because they know either way they have a path in life and it’s all going to be okay.

Try to avoid constant mentions of results day

As a parent, it is important for you to try and avoid the topic of exam results as much as possible. For some parents it can be quite tempting to say; “It’s only a few days until your results” or “I wonder if you’ll do as well as your brother did”. These conversations can raise a young person’s anxiety, so try and stay off the topic of exam results until the day.

Similarly, if your child is finding that their friends are constantly talking about exam results, encourage them to talk to the friendship group and suggest a ban on the topic until results day to stop their anxiety from getting out of control.

Remind them of the importance of other life skills

Talking to your child about attributes that will help them in their adult life - other than just their grades - can be incredibly helpful.

Encourage your child to get involved in building up skills such as being hard-working, kind, a team player and having good communication skills while they wait for results. By helping a young person to see that they have other strengths and abilities - and that their grades aren’t the be-all and end-all - this can boost their self-confidence and help their anxieties to lessen over time.   

Coronavirus information

We have now resumed face-to-face therapy at some of our hospitals and wellbeing centres, as well as continuing to offer this remotely. We continue to offer access to inpatient services where this is required. For more information on our online therapy service, please visit our Priory Connect page or read our latest online therapy blog. For the latest information on how Priory are responding to coronavirus, and keeping our patients and staff safe, please visit our COVID-19 preparedness blog.

Blog reviewed by Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg (MBBS, MRCPsych, MMedSci), Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford

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