Coping Well with Exam Stress

Standardized Testing in Education

Exams are on the way – for some it’s important exams – but actually for many students every exam feels important at the time.

Parents want to help, but the trouble is that a lot of the best tips for managing exam stress sound incredibly like the nagging we may have been doing for years – eat your greens, go to bed early, exercise, plan ahead, check your answers, don’t worry.

How we help our children to manage exam stress – or any stress – gives them tools for life.  

It is rarely a case of simply running through a useful check list, however.  Check lists are useful, but implementing them is not simple.  We know this from our own experience – or we’d all be well slept, exercised, fed, organised, stimulated, productive and relaxed!

As adults we also know that when we are stressed and overwhelmed, the best thing that can happen is if someone can take some of the load away.

Take some of the pressure off your teen.

Even though you may feel run off your feet, wherever you can and whenever she will let you, take on some of the pressure yourself.

You may feel that your teen is old enough to take responsibility for her own food, sleep, washing, planning, time management, exercise, organisation, perspective, and motivation – and perhaps normally she is, but exam-time isn’t normally.  Remember how much better you can cope in times of high demand when someone else shoulders some of your responsibilities.  Websites offering good advice to teens about how to cope with exams are plentiful – but this may not be an easy time for your teen to take it in, or put it into action.  So you do it.  Read the advice, scan the checklists, and trust your instincts about which pieces of information will be most relevant to your child.  Then get creative in how you can step in and help your teen to improve her exam coping skills.

Here are some examples, but you will need to tailor-make yours to suit you and your daughter:

*  Better sleep – buy her some epsom salts or lavender oil to add to a relaxing bath that you run half an hour before a sensible bedtime.

*  Improved diet – rather than fretting about her eating junk, fill her plate and your cupboards with appetizing treats that you do want her to eat (peaches, dried mango, cashew nuts, hot chocolate to replace coffee, her favourite dishes, boil her an egg for breakfast).

*  Motivation – especially if your child is having trouble motivating herself, know that your nudging or nagging will get her down.  Make it your job to notice when she does manage to study.  Give thought to what gets in the way when she doesn’t and how you could help.

*  Laundry – do hers: gather in the dirties, wash, dry, sort and put them away.  One less thing for her to do.

*  Water – fill her a water bottle for the day, and place a glass of water with lemon slice on her desk while she studies.

*  Exercise and breaks – offer to go swimming with her, or walk the dog, or to take her and her friends dancing.

*  Perspective –  Be aware of how you talk about exams – don’t make them sound as if they are everything Childline reports that kids feel that parents are often the source of unbearable exam pressure.  Be around to listen after an exam, don’t dwell on mistakes but focus on what still lies ahead, and suggest she avoid anxious or competitive talk with friends.

*  Take deep breaths when you’re stressed – let her see how that helps you to collect yourself.

*  Self-talk – make yours audible: “Oh help, this is impossible….No, I can do this, I can cope.”  or “I’m useless at this…. Useless? Not beat yet.”

You are not her slave and you can be her saviour.

Parents often fear that if they do too much for their teens, it will not teach them to take care of themselves.  At times of exam stress however, if you do more for your child, you lead by example, showing her ways of taking care of herself.  Initially you are doing it, later on she will.  Once the exams are over, she can return to helping more again; helping herself and you.

You might not have her full appreciation just now; so hold onto the knowledge that the majority of young women in their mid-twenties are full of praise for what their mother’s did for them in their difficult adolescent years.

Finally, if you’re getting stressed about her exams, then take heed of the checklists on how to manage exam stress yourself!

Photo: 123RF by Lisa Young
Posted on 17 April 2014
Musings: Parenting teenagers, Parenting girls
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Average size

Thumbs up to Debenhams, the first department store in Britain to display mannequins our size.

Jo Swinson   Photograph: Debenhams

Most other shops use size 8 or size 10 because we all want to see how clothes look on women who are three sizes smaller than us, don’t we?


Many teen girls struggle as the hormones of puberty give fullness to their hips and a roundness to their belly.  This struggle is made worse by the changing room battle, wishing to fit the stereotype of female perfection – no hips, flat belly, long legs, and now we have the aspiration of the thigh gap.

There are many different ways of countering the damaging effects of impossible cultural ideals for womanhood – more realistic mannequins is one.

Posted on 12 March 2014
Musings: Parenting girls
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Catholic confirmation – what makes a rite of passage meaningful?

Recently I had the good fortune to be invited to the confirmation ceremony of a friend of my eldest.  Although I’ve been invited to all manner of coming of age ceremonies (people know that it’s my thing!) I’d not been to a Catholic confirmation before.

After the stage had been set: a beautiful building, special clothing, candles, incense, and chanting, each adolescent was called by name to stand in a semi-circle at the front.  They were then asked a series of serious questions relating to their faith.

As babies at baptism key adults in these children’s lives undertook to answer these questions on their behalf; now in their teens, these young people were taking over this responsibility for themselves.

This was no small thing.

Over several months they would have met together with elders of their church to learn more about their faith and what it would actually mean to say “I do” to the questions at their confirmation.  In these times when the majority of teens are not actively practicing any religion, the need to truly search for meaning in their faith would have been very real.

After being called forward by name, and agreeing to take on the adult mantle of their faith, each child was brought to the Bishop, one by one, to be anointed and to take a new name of their own choosing.  With tears in my eyes, I watched as each child stepped up to the Bishop with their sponsor at their side.  Their sponsor, often a parent, stood behind them, with a hand on their shoulder, as the bishop touched their forehead with consecrated oil and spoke the words of confirmation.  I could feel the power of tradition as the same actions, the same words, the same ceremony was repeated for each child as probably would have been done for their sponsor years before, and most of the adults in the congregation.  A choir sang in beautiful harmony in the background.

Although there was a steady stream of thirty or more children, the attention that each child received gave a sense of the importance of what was happening for each one.

I talked to our newly confirmed friend afterwards and he said, “At first I was sort of going along with it – but when it came to it, in the actual service, I had one of those moments that felt really peaceful… what being in touch with God feels like.  It confirmed why I’m Catholic.”

This is the power of ceremony:- this young person’s ability to take responsibility for some very important aspects of his life was acknowledged.  After a period of instruction and guidance from their elders, each child was asked to step forward to take up that responsibility. 


Adolescents strive to be seen and treated as young adults 

Many religions have continued to recognise the importance of taking their young adults through a process of initiation into adulthood.  Most young people are denied this however – as many families no longer have a religion to which they subscribe.   Unlike with baby namings, weddings and funerals, the secular community have lost this particular ceremony – the rite of passage marking a person’s coming of age.

This is to our communities’ detriment.  We miss the opportunity to positively influence our teens shaping into adults. Young people crave their maturation to be acknowledged and if the adults won’t do it, they’ll create it for themselves through mimicry of what they perceive to be ‘adult behaviour’ using dress, drinking, sexual activity, and risk-taking.

Research shows that teens have brains that are being reconfigured – and while they are reforming, they are maleable and vulnerable.  Young people benefit hugely from the guiding influence of honourable and caring adults.  Many teens have few others than their own parents (and sometimes not even them) to turn to during their times of challenge and change.  We abandon our teens to a long drawn-out adolescence if we don’t enable them to take over the reins and begin to adopt the attributes of a maturing grown-up.

What makes a rite of passage meaningful is that young people are taken to one side and time is invested in preparing them for adulthood.  They are challenged and tested and prove themselves to be ready to take a symbolic step towards young adulthood.  This step is witnessed and celebrated in the eyes of their community.  Young people feel that their maturation is acknowledged and many report a positive shift in their sense of themselves.

More parents are realising the power of providing their child with explicit support as they come of age.  This website is expressly designed to support parents in doing this.  The Journey on the right hand side of this page guides you through this process – with suggestions about how to deepen your relationship with your child, to stand you in good stead as they enter their teens.  Information on how to create your own rite of passage ceremony is also here.  Specific information is available for mother’s guiding girls through puberty.  Then the pieces that I write regularly are sparked by what girls say in my groups, or conversations with mothers, or your comments on this website.

I really appreciate your comments and contributions.

Posted on 31 January 2014
Musings: Coming of age, Rites of passage
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