How to help your child with exam stress

student walking in the school corridor

How your child copes with exam stress can sometimes make a difference to their final grades, so it's really important to understand how you can support them through exams – before, during, and after. Read on for top tips from parents who've been through it and come out the other side.

Dealing with school exam stress can be a tricky business, but thankfully there are things you can do to help your child deal with the stress that exam periods inevitably cause.

After scouring the Mumsnet forums for testimony from parents who have successfully waded through the exam minefield, the verdict is in. Here are nine ways that you can help your child with exam stress. 

1. Set up a revision routine and stick to it

We all know that stress can do really weird things to our diet and sleep patterns, so it's really important to make sure your child is eating well, getting a balanced diet, and getting plenty of rest. A good routine is key, so make sure to implement a clear one and stick to it even during study leave – for example, keep revision between the hours of 9am and 5pm where possible.

At the very least, encourage your child to carve time out of every single day for three proper meals, and also a 15- to 20-minute snack break in the morning and afternoon. Food is also a great excuse for regular breaks from the books and screen, so make sure you coax them out of their rooms and down to the kitchen for each meal.

Also make sure there is time for a wind down before bed, too. A sensible bedtime and good night sleep should always be scheduled where possible, although we know that this one is harder to enforce.

“For over-revisers, food is a good way to lure them out of their rooms. Keep emphasising that just as athletes need a break for muscles to consolidate and repair, so do brains. And hope they listen to that.”

“Give them lots of food. And try to limit their intake of caffeine.”

“The most important thing I felt I could do was encourage regular breaks (my son often felt swamped by the volume of work he had to cover in so many subjects) and also to eat well and not revise too late into the evening. Basic stuff, but he needed reminding!”

Why not try:

Related: Family-friendly mid-week recipes – perfect for quick and wholesome meals

2. Be practical

calculator

Half the battle of exam season is not only remembering which exam is when, but also keeping track of what you'll need to take with you to the exam.

Some exams need calculators, some allow pre-prepared texts and notes. Make sure everything your child is going to need is laid out and then packed the night before – and make sure they have spares (yes, of everything).

Remind your child to check any rules about the type of equipment they can use – they won't want to be all flustered emptying out their pencil case after arriving at the exam to find out it doesn't meet regulations. Most exams specify black pen only, so make sure you send them in with loads of these, too.

“The most helpful thing I have found is to know in advance which exam is when and make sure that you have everything they need specifically for each exam (pens, maths instruments, calculator, colouring pencils, etc) ready the night before. And always have spare stationery – my son lost his calculator between Maths 1 and Maths 2!”

Why not try:

3. Remind them that you’re going to be proud no matter what

pride in daughter

Oftentimes, most of the anxiety and pressure young people feel during exam time is caused by not wanting to let other people down, whether parents, teachers or friends. Help to manage their stress by making it clear that no matter what their results are at the end of the year, you're going to be proud of them.

There's more to life than exams, and while getting good grades will unlock more opportunities more quickly for your child, there are also many other routes into a happy job once school is done. And – you know what – exams can always be retaken, too.

“Schools put so much pressure on children, so sometimes being reminded that they won't be valued on the basis of the number of A*s – or grade 9s – they get, can really boost a child's confidence.”

“Remember, if everything doesn't pan out as they hoped then there are always different routes to get them to where they want to go.”

4. Ask your child how you can help

studying with tea

Your involvement can be as little or as large as they want – and you shouldn't be offended either way. Just as we all work differently as adults, revision can look completely different for each young person. Some will benefit from question-and-answer sessions with other people, while some will want absolute silence and minimal disruptions.

See if there's anything you can fetch for your child when you go out to the shops – it may be that bringing the colour-coded flashcards (or a mega-sized chocolate bar) just at the right time is the most crucial input you can have that day.

If you're still feeling a bit useless in the face of their exam stress, try asking them what would help and offer suggestions if they seem unsure – they're trying to navigate a new situation just like you are, and you need to work together to get it right.

Remember, the only person who really knows how they're feeling is them, so it makes sense that they are also the best person to tell you what works for them and what doesn't.



“Ask your child how you can help! If they struggle to think of what you could/couldn't do, you could describe some options. This could be anything from backing off completely, or just bringing them the odd cup of tea, through to active involvement in the process such as helping with exam timetables or running through flash cards with them. The act of asking will speak volumes about your being on their side.”

“Mine likes to give me cards to test her for some subjects, but mostly it is about reassuring her. She too thinks it is all 'too hard' and 'too much'. I just reassure here that everyone (across the country) is in the same boat.”

“We are reading all the literature texts together, a chapter or scene each evening. I'm particularly enjoying my Shakespearean acting at the moment!”

“If they find a subject harder than expected, exam technique can get you an awful long way. In my daughter's case that was French – she analysed sentence constructions that picked up marks, and just memorised lots of variations/vocabulary to use that would fit in lots of different contexts.”

Why not try:

Related: Tried and tested exam survival tips to help get you through

5. Cut them some slack

The majority of your child's time at school has been building up to this moment – for years they've been told what these exams mean and how important they are. So when revision and exams finally swing round, it's no surprise that it's an overwhelming occasion.

If they're being difficult, acting up or getting moody, take a moment to remember how it feels to be in their shoes and take some deep breaths.

“If they get grumpy, don't get grumpy back. Take a deep breath, remember this is a horrid time for them, and see it as a sign that extra hot chocolate is needed. Chocolate Ovaltine at bedtime went down well in our house!”

“I also make her go out and walk her friends dog every now and then, to both get some fresh air, and move around, but also to chat and laugh with her friend.”

6. Deal with the anxieties one by one

It can be so easy to catastrophize in situations like this – 'what if all the questions are on topics I haven't revised?', 'what if I don't sleep at all the night before and am too tired for the exam?', 'what if my bus breaks down and I don't make it to the exam at all?'. While all these concerns are valid, the chance of any of them happening is often slim.

When they raise these concerns with you, try not to minimise them – it may be obvious to you that these scenarios are unlikely but, if they are on their mind, be sure to listen.

Take some time to properly talk everything through – offer a listening ear when needed and some helpful mitigation where required. There's nothing better for their mental health than taking the time to appreciate a concern and then helping to alleviate it.

Firstly, is there anything you can do yourself to ease the worry? Can you help by offering a lift on the morning of the exam, or by buying an extra pen or calculator? If not, is there anyone else who could offer help?

“Discuss everything that's worrying your child and deal with it systematically. Write each worry down on a Post-it note with your response under it and put it up on their wall.”

“A life coach once got me to identify what the worst possible thing that could go wrong in that situation would be and to work out how I'd deal with it. I was prepared for the worst, it obviously didn't happen, and then everything went OK because it all faded in comparison. I still use this today and it works for me.”

Why not try:

Related: Read more about mindfulness for children

7. Try alternative stress solutions and remember to breathe

rescue remedy

Everyone has different coping mechanisms when things get stressed or anxious, but sometimes grabbing a book and sitting down to read for 10 minutes doesn't quite cut the mustard. When all else fails, there are some alternative remedies for stress which you can easily get your hands on.

For a start, it's definitely worth printing out this breathing technique from the NHS and making sure your child learns it for themselves. This way, whether they're overwhelmed during revision (or even during the exam itself), they have a routine to fall back on to restore some calm at the first signs of stress.

There are also loads of great remedies and sprays to help soothe a worrier – these could be drops to add to drinks, pastilles to chew on or fragrances to spritz on the pillow to help with sleep, to name but a few. Whether you think they actually work or they just have a brilliant placebo effect, Mumsnet users love the benefits they can have on stressed-out teens.

“My daughter was always 'too busy' to revise, so she used to cram in the last 48 hours before each exam which drove us all nuts. Bach Rescue Remedy still brings her down off the ceiling when stress unleashes her inner monster.”

“Rescue Remedy gives you the feeling that you're taking something that will help. Look online for breathing exercises and techniques that can help too.”

Headspace is a good app for calming panicky feelings, and you get a free 10-day trial – worth a shot (it helped me).”

Why not try:

8. Run through exam technique

Sometimes, the nerves and fear your child experiences will come from the fact that they don't know what to expect from the exam itself.

Although they will do mock exams and past papers at school, there is a lot you can do at home to help them prepare, too. Take some time to chat with them about what they think the exam will be like, if they know who they are likely to be sitting near and what questions they hope will come up.

Also, try going through these handy exam tips so that your child can prepare themselves for what will happen once they're in the exam:

  1. Give yourself five minutes right at the start to read the question paper properly, and make speedy notes.
  2. Identify what each question is about right from the off, and what the answers will require.
  3. Decide which question you want to answer first – usually, this would be a chance to get the one you want to spend the most time on out of the way first, but it works different ways for different people.
  4. Answer the question asked and not the one you wish you had been asked.
  5. Remember that sometimes the question is disguised and, if you take a moment to work it out, you'll see that you do know the answer even if it didn't look like you did at first.
  6. Show your working out! Then, even if you still don't quite get the right answer, you can still be given credit for knowing your stuff.

“Doing past papers can give them reassurance, even if they answer questions incorrectly. Often it's not knowledge but silly mistakes like not reading or answering the question asked. If there are gaps of forgotten knowledge, you can then aim the revision in that direction.”

“You can't control the exams themselves, but you can help control their preparedness.”

“Things you can help with are making sure they understand what the examiner is looking for in each subject; knowing how to construct an answer in the expected format; practising lots of past papers and knowing which topics/questions are almost definitely going to come up; and practising timings so they always finish the paper on time.”

Why not try:

Related: How the new GCSE grading system works

9. Keep the balance

oh the places you'll go

When all's said and done, the most important word to keep in mind throughout exam time is: balance – whether that's the balance between revision and down time, or the balance of wanting them to do well but not wanting to pile on too much pressure.

The calmer you keep, the calmer your child will stay, so keeping cool-headed in the face of it all is what is most important.

“Be careful to get the balance right between telling them how important the exam is and also just being supportive.”

“We've settled for saying that they want to reflect the work they've put in over the year in the result for the exam but at the same time if everything doesn't pan out as they hoped then there are always different routes to get to where you want to go. These exams are just one of them and maybe the most straightforward. The motorway really. The other routes (A roads and B roads) might take longer but also might mean that they see more scenery, meet more people and arrive more relaxed.”

Useful resources for you and your child:

Check out the best online learning resources to help your child with exam technique.

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