Category: For parents

How to face the exam season while keeping sane: When anxiety runs high (for my child and me!)

Published : Mar 19, 2024
by Rec Parenting Team

Is anxiety always bad?

No! We are going through a period where we think that we should never feel anxious, or angry, or sad. Moreover, we want to protect our children, so they never feel anxious, angry, or sad. The problem is that by doing this we are pathologizing normal human experience. There are situations, such as when we have an exam, that feeling some degree of anxiety is good because it motivates us to revise. There is such a thing as healthy anxiety. We must not avoid feeling negative emotions because sometimes it is what we are meant to be feeling. Negative emotions are adaptive. 

Because they are growing up with this mindset, many children and teenagers assume that all anxiety is bad, so it is a good idea to have a chat with your child about what healthy and unhealthy anxiety look like. Feeling anxious when you have a test tomorrow is healthy.  However, it is true that sometimes we may experience too much anxiety.

How do we know when a child is too anxious? At what point does anxiety become unhealthy?

Anxiety appears when we worry about something that is going to happen, such as an exam, a presentation, a visit to the doctor… It is totally fine to feel some anxiety when faced with those situations. However, there are two situations that should worry us if they are happening to our child. One, your child is constantly feeling anxious even when there is no apparent reason for it. Two, when faced with a challenging situation, such as an exam, the level of anxiety that your child is experiencing is paralyzing them and they cannot function well. In both cases, it is a good idea to explore what is going on and to consider seeking professional advice. 

My child is feeling very anxious because of the exams, what can I do to support them?

  • Have a chat to make clear that they understand that anxiety is a healthy emotion and that there is nothing wrong with feeling anxious as long as they can manage it. 

  • Help your child develop a growth mindset. Often we say things like: “I am an anxious person and that’s it” and while it is true that we may have a tendency to anxiety, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything we can do to fix it. So, it is important to tell your child: “Yes you are anxious, but you can work on it. There are ways to deal with the anxiety”. On this note, have a chat about which influencers they are following on TikTok.  For some their anxiety diagnosis (or their self-proclaimed diagnosis) has become part of their identity. Your child may be imitating them even without realizing they are doing it. 

  • Consider the message you are giving when discussing exams. Research shows that children react badly when the message is focused on the potential negative outcomes. For example, when we say things like: “If you don’t work hard, you will not get into a good university”, children feel threatened, and this increases their exam anxiety. It is better to point out the benefits of hard work rather than the outcomes of failure. 

  • Create a new habit: Encourage your child to write down their emotions before each exam. I know this sounds silly but there is research showing that by doing this, children get their worrying thoughts out of their system, and they do better in the exam.

  • If your child is feeling very anxious, help them to shift their focus: encourage them to think about something else. Ideally, something that they find comforting. It might be something they like doing, a place they love, a pet, or someone they like. Encourage them to think about this, whenever they feel panicky. 

  • If your child has a moment when he is feeling very, very anxious, create a sensory experience to help them snap out of it. Give them ice cubes to hold, ask them to rub an ice cube against their face or arms, or tell them to have a cold shower. When a child does these, they get distracted from the anxious feelings and thoughts they were experiencing. 

  • Finally, the old ones: Encourage exercise, a healthy diet, enough sleep, and less screen time. I know, I know, that you have heard these a thousand times and so has your child but there is a reason why all experts keep on repeating them: They work. If your child is not impressed nor amused, why don’t you act in all or some of them, as a family? You may even create a family challenge with fun rewards. 
Close Up Of Female Pupil Taking Multiple Choice Examination Paper

These all makes sense but can you please explain why even though my child feels very anxious about his upcoming exams, he doesn’t revise! 

Sometimes when we feel anxious about something, we avoid it altogether! And we end up making it worse, which only makes our anxiety go through the roof. In the case of the exams, this may lead to procrastination, they revise less, and this increases their fear of failing and of the exam itself. 

If this is happening, your child may need some support to organize themselves. Help them to do a realistic timetable, create a revision strategy, and help them to stick with it.  

My child says that no matter how hard he tries, he will fail.  

When children have the idea that they will fail no matter how hard they try, rather than telling them that everything will be OK (because it may not), tell them that you will love them no matter what and that if things go wrong, they will be able to cope, and you will be there for them. 

Also, challenge these negative self-beliefs. Why do they think they would fail no matter what? What evidence is there? Have they always failed? When we use all-or-nothing statements such as ‘never’, ‘no one’, ‘a 100%’, ‘always’, we are referring to a fantasy, a familiar belief that needs to be challenged and changed.  Encourage them to change these beliefs with positive ones: “If I work hard, I have more chances of doing well than of failing”. 

Finally, consider that like viruses our emotions are socially transmitted

Social emotional contagion is a well-known phenomenon by which emotions spread from person to person within a peer group. Anxiety is contagious. So, if your child’s friends’ group is feeling very anxious, it is likely your child will also be anxious. This is especially relevant for teenagers, because they are very sensitive to peer influence and they find it especially hard to regulate their emotions. If your child thinks that their friends are making them feel more anxious, suggest that during the exam period, they reduce the time they spend together. You may also discuss it with their tutor to see if they are willing to do some group techniques to help deal with anxiety. 

OK, you have talked about my child’s anxiety but what about my own anxiety?

It is totally normal for you to feel anxious before the kids have their exams. Indeed, research shows that we are feeling more anxious as a society. As a parent, it is important to bear in mind that we pass on our anxiety to our kids, and this is one of the reasons why anxiety is also more common now in kids. The issue is that a lot of what we pass on to our children, we do so without even noticing. Even if we don’t explicitly tell our children how anxious we are feeling, they notice because they pick up on the way we talk, our behaviour, facial expressions and so on. If you are feeling anxious use the same techniques that we have just explained. 

One last thought. We live in a society where intensive parenting is the norm. Very often, parents rate their own level of self-worth by their kids’ academic achievement. Let’s remember that this is not the case: however incredibly, OKish, or poorly your child does in their exams, it does not define who you are as a parent or as a person. Exam results are only a snapshot of your child’s knowledge and understanding of specific topics at a certain point in time. Just that. 

I hope you find this article useful. We are running workshops on this topic across schools and companies. If you are interested in booking one, please email me at ana@recparenting.com If your school or workplace won’t do it, email me anyway and we can run it for a group of your friends (maybe with a glass of wine?). We wish your child all the best of luck in the exams! 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments
Cristoj
2024-04-09 18:20:19
Great article!!!

Registered in England & Wales. Company No.13460950. Registered office Salatin House, 19 Cedar Road, Sutton, SM2 5DA, United Kingdom

Important information about cookies
This web portal uses its own and third-party cookies to collect information that helps optimize your visit. Cookies are not used to collect personal information. You can allow its use or reject it, you can also change its settings whenever you want. More information is available in our Cookies policy.
These cookies help make the website usable by activating basic functions such as web browsing. page and access to secure areas of the website. The website cannot function properly without these cookies.
Statistical cookies help website owners understand how visitors interact with websites by collecting and providing information anonymously.