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Testing times: As exam results are released, Priory child psychiatrist tells parents ‘having a ‘Plan B’ is so important in reducing a child’s anxiety’

  • Stress, depression and anxiety have been common among pupils studying from home for important exams during the pandemic
  • Priory expert explains how parents can help when exam results are issued
  • Case study: ‘Milly’ talks about what it has been like to be a GCSE student during Covid-19

It’s been a stressful year for students, culminating for many in AS, A level and GCSE results in England this week, as well as results for many vocational and technical qualifications.

Students will get AS and A level results on Tuesday, and GCSE results on Thursday. Summer 2021 grades have been determined by teachers because of different levels of Covid disruption across the country.

But while many young people will be celebrating, others may be feeling anxiety or disappointment; things may not go as planned.

The first port of call is the school – teachers can reassure pupils there are a range of options, from appealing against results to vocational courses, to changing their ‘A’ level or university degree course of choice for example. But parents also play a significant role in reassuring children and helping them see the bigger picture, says Priory expert Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, a child and adolescent consultant psychiatrist.

Dr van Zwanenberg (www.priorygroup.com), based at the Priory’s Oxford Wellbeing Centre, says: “The main point I always make to young people worrying about failing or not doing so well in exams, is that they should have a Plan A and a Plan B.  Plan A is the course of action they will take if they get the results they want, Plan B is the back-up plan if results do not go their way.  Parents can help young people in forming a realistic plan B and once this is in place, it often, really markedly, reduces the anxiety they feel as they know, whatever happens, there is a plan.

“It is also important to help young people see that it is ok to be ‘good enough’, they do not have to be perfect.  Often young people believe they must get the top results, but if they have tried their best, they have done well enough.

“Additionally I point out to young people that future employers do not just look for grades. Employers value good communication skills, being a team player, being reliable, hard-working and knowing your own strengths and weaknesses just as much as grades.  Evidence shows that grades might help get you your first job, depending on what you are applying for, but after that the other skills are much more important to an employer than grades. I then point out to young people how they demonstrate these valuable skills.

“Generally helping young people keep things in perspective can be very helpful.  Telling them true success stories of people who did not get the grades they wanted but did well anyway, or who took a course later in life, can help them see there are many options, and their future is not solely based on these results.”

Case study

Milly, 16, from London (not her real name), who like thousands of others is awaiting GCSE results, says: “It’s been a really stressful year. We weren’t taught or tested in a way we were used to, and there wasn’t much support for that. Cancelling exams was supposed to be ‘support’, but being taught from home has so many disadvantages, including wifi problems – it would buffer so you couldn’t hear the teacher properly, which was really stressful, or you’d need to leave the call and get back on. Often there was a 10-minute period when the teacher’s internet wasn’t good enough.

“Emotionally, this period (of waiting for exam results) has caused a lot of people to isolate themselves because we are all dealing with it differently – it’s not a universal experience, like being at school. You haven’t had the support system of friends like you do during the school day and it can be a lonely time, which can affect emotions negatively. Some people are getting panic attacks, or a loss of appetite or a feeling of anxiety in the pit of their stomach.

“Most are trying to escape from results day, and avoid it in their heads, otherwise they panic. There is so much uncertainty. A lot of people are really worried; we have ridden a rollercoaster of a year and don’t have as much control as we feel we typically would. The most helpful thing parents can be is supportive, and proud their child got through this time. My advice to parents would be: give your child the space and time to express how difficult their year was – and go out to the leisure centre, cinema, theatre, shopping or a meal together.”

Young people can call 0800 1111 or go to the website www.childline.org.uk where they can access message boards and talk to like-minded young people about how they are feeling or head to the Calm Zone to help with anxieties. From April to June 2021, Childline counsellor delivered 1,812 counselling sessions to young people who spoke about concerns relating to exams.

The Priory mental health app My Possible Self is available for anyone over the age of 18.

Parents wanting to access a mental health expert can contact Priory.  

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