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STUDY STRESS: HOW TO SUPPORT YOUR KIDS WITH EXAMS

The number of teenagers experiencing study stress is on the rise. Here are some tips to help you support your child’s mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.

Study is a part of life for children and teenagers. Learning how to manage the pressures that come from wanting to achieve high marks and get into uni courses can be stressful and challenging.

An increasing number of young people are more stressed about exams and study than ever before. In fact, almost two-thirds of young people experience worrying levels of exam stress, with one in 10 facing extreme stress.

COVID-19 has also had a significant impact, with 47% of Australians aged 13–17 saying the pandemic has negatively affected their levels of stress and anxiety. But despite the worrying statistics, there are practical and helpful strategies you can use to help your child manage study stress.

Signs your teenager is stressed about study

It’s good to remember that some level of stress is a normal part of life and small amounts of stress can actually help with motivation and productivity. But when there’s an imbalance between the pressure to do or achieve certain things at high or consistent levels, stress can become a problem and detrimental to health and wellbeing.

"Year 11 and 12 is a pressure-cooker environment and most young people will experience some level of stress," says psychologist Sabina Read. "But problematic stress is when it impacts day-to-day functioning."

By tuning in and looking for changes in your child’s usual mood or behaviour, you can step in to help them manage their feelings.

Signs of study can stress include:

  • being withdrawn or disengaged
  • losing interest in usual hobbies or pursuits
  • expressing strong feelings of anger, frustration or irritability
  • changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • feeling or thinking negatively about the future
  • difficulty sleeping or trouble waking up
  • a racing heart rate, nausea or stomach upset
  • difficulty finding motivation to study.

How to help your child manage study stress

Here are four practical ways you can help reduce your teenager’s exam stress.

Acknowledge their experience

"It’s important to validate your child’s feelings," Sabina says. "Ask them questions like, 'What’s the hardest thing about being you at the moment?' Be open to listening to and understanding their experience."

Encourage social connection

According to Sabina, connecting with peers is particularly important for teenagers. "Think about how you can help facilitate meaningful social relationships, like going on walks with friends, playing sport or just catching up," she says.

Focus on what can be controlled

"We all prefer certainty in life, but there are no guarantees about how year 11 or 12 will pan out, especially given the pandemic," Sabina says. "Focus instead on what can be controlled."

This may include talking through a study plan for each day or week, providing your child with a distraction-free space to study and encouraging them to take regular breaks.

Avoiding burnout

"Sleep is so important for young people and it can be a real challenge for teenagers," Sabina says. "They’re often not being resistant or rebellious, it’s just that their body clock is different."

Encourage your teen to limit screen time before bed, support them to eat well, exercise regularly and have a consistent bedtime routine.

Putting years 11 and 12 in perspective

In an attempt to relieve the stress your children feel, it can be tempting to say exam results aren’t the be-all and end-all.

"We can tell our children their ATAR doesn’t define them, but the system doesn’t necessarily echo that sentiment," Sabina says. "Rather than saying it’s only a score, explore what the ATAR means to your child."

If your teenager wants to pursue a specific study or work pathway, be curious about that. "Sometimes teenagers feel they should take a particular route so we need to unpack what that pathway means to them as opposed to assuming we know," Sabina says.

Supporting kids who aren’t interested

Not every child will be motivated to achieve highly during year 11 or 12.

"We can’t minimise the impact of the pandemic," Sabina says. "So many milestones your child thought they’d hit – like going to schoolies or their formal, or just being at school each day – have been taken away. It’s likely COVID will impact on some teenagers’ motivation levels."

Sabina believes, a great way to support your teenager is to ask questions. "Be interested in their experience," she says. "Be curious about what school or studying is like for them. Once you know what’s important to them and what they’re struggling with, then you can start to help."

Need more help or advice about teen study stress?

If you have concerns about your teenager’s level of stress, you can seek professional help from a counsellor, your GP or a psychologist specialising in stress and anxiety.

And don’t forget to use these trusted resources to help support you or your teen:

The HCF Navigating Parenthood – Talking to Teens podcast is also full of useful, practical advice from experts, and teens themselves, sharing insights about what’s going on in their lives and offering suggestions about how parents can engage with them.

If you or your child is feeling depressed or anxious and need to talk to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Lindy Alexander
First published Ocotber 2020

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