It's that time of year when the exams are suddenly just around the corner and the stress levels start to rise.
It's around this time of year that my subconscious does this fabulous fun thing - the annual Leaving Cert dream. If I'm really lucky it'll be specific - like Irish paper 1 - or an accountancy paper full of Question 1s - either way it morphs pretty smartly into a nightmare.
It's probably because I'm around so many Leaving Cert students and stress, despite our best efforts, can be contagious. Certainly almost palpable, and if you're a parent you'll know this very, very well.
Peig, the Patron saint of Leaving Cert stress, may her cursed memoir rest in pieces, was the bane of my life. When she was finally expelled from the syllabus in 1999 it was too late for me.
How I hated that book and its infernal companion (or, in truth, substitute) the Notaí (was that was it was called?).
Now I do know that once we grow up and get some sense, we develop an appreciation for this book, and the history - I understand that.
And I mean no offence with my facetiousness.
Actually - you can even get a Peig Podcast! But I've yet to recover sufficiently to download that one...
I am now so ancient as to have friends who are parenting Leaving Cert Students and such fun they are having! (I'm being facetious again).
So I thought I'd do a quick piece on how to manage; not all tips come from me but rather are borne of recent conversations I've had, mostly socially.
We talk about exam stress differently because it has an extra set of flavours to it. There are fears attached to exam stress that are unique and come together in a most unpleasant cocktail.
- The fear of failure
- Of their teachers’ criticism
- Their examiners’ criticism
- Of not achieving a dreamt of future, of falling behind peers.
- And, last but by no means least, the fear of disappointing you, their parents.
So here are my ten tips, except there are 10 and a half:
1. Encourage your child to stick to their routine(studying, sleeping, eating) – now is not the time to make big changes, to anything.
2. Encourage them to seek out study tips from trusted teachers or proper online sources. I wrote a piece on my own blog that might help. It's evidence based but not loaded with references or "academic speak".
3. Do you best to ensure they eat – unfortunately, girls, in particular, will be thinking about their beach body for the post-exam splurge. Monitor this as best you can and be the voice that challenges the “be-thin-at-all-costs” mantra. I know you can't force feed them. Just do your best to be a role model and a healthy influence. Now might be the time to get very 'routiney' about family meal times.
4. Encourage them to sleep.They’ll be tempted to pull all-nighters – you may have done it yourself?? (#GuiltyAsCharged!) Understandable but ineffective. A stressed young brain needs sleep to be able to reproduce learned material well!
5. Get them out in the air. This is super important – even though it might trigger an argument. It's worth the fight. If they complain of being too tired, explain, calmly as possible, that they may be experiencing study induced inertia. If they get out they’ll notice their energy level will come back up. It might help to go with them – have a walk, a run, a rant, a giggle! All conscious and temporary distraction is good.
6. Create space for them to talk if (when) they are stressed. Remind them to choose someone who will actually listen and be helpful. So that means avoiding the high achieving perfectionist stressed out friend, or the relative with their own regrets who are now foisting them on your child. (Remind them, if you feel it's a potential issue, that you will never be disappointed in them if they don't get what they want. Being disappointed for someone is different than in someone.)
7. Remind them to take a lot of breaks.It might look like they're wasting time but really, they need regular breaks to keep the concentration going, which seems counterintuitive but it's true. We work better in bursts.
8. Chat about study drugs that people are trying to sell off to students. Are their friends using them? This might be an easier way to get into the whole "Are YOU using them?" conversation for some parents. We now know that the side effects can actually damage cognitive performance.
9. Avoid your friends who have kids in the same class before the exams if there’s a chance it will make you, and possibly as a result your child, anxious. It’s OK to avoid people now unless they’re supportive and calming.
Actually, that’s always ok. That’s not just an exam tip.
9.5. ON that, avoid chats, FB threads and parents/students who are panicking and negative and lying about how much work their kids have done and encourage your child to do the same. (“OMG he still hasn’t opened a BOOK!!” – you know the ones….) You are likely stressed too, and emotional as your child ends this phase of their life. Stress, excitement, fear, grief - it's all in there for you too!
10. Remind your teen (and yourself) that it's not only OK but crucial to keep having fun– So TV shows, Netflix, music, socialising – all the things that make them laugh or feel good, they need to keep doing them. And do them as a family too! Your teen really needs to feel a part of something supportive now. And they need to know that even when they are crazy with stress, that you still like and want to spend time with them.
I mean, you do, right? (I'm being facetious again... must be the time of year!)
Sally O’Reilly is the Family Psychology Expert here at FamilyFriendlyHQ. She's a Psychologist, Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor in private practice in East Cork with twenty years’ fulltime experience. She has a special interest in working with teenagers. For more info contact her through her site sallyoreilly.com, via Twitteror via Facebook.