Tips for managing exam stress

Exam time is well and truly upon us! In this week's edition of The Journey, we talk with the experts about how to help our sons manage exam stress.

It’s that time of year again…EXAM TIME!

When I asked my son how he felt about it, he said breezily, “I don’t get exam stress.”“Then why do you get moody before tests?” I asked him.“I’m not stressed about my tests, I’m just annoyed with you guys” (his parents and siblings).

A friend whose son attends a selective high school told me a similar story, telling me his son had claimed he wasn’t stressed but had feigned various minor medical issues before his entrance exam.

In the hope of getting some more open and honest insights into how teenage boys cope with exam stress I asked some adult male friends how they felt about exams.

“Oh, you know I had these really vivid nightmares for a few years after I left school that I hadn’t prepared well enough for my exams,” one said. “I think I pushed all the stress down into my subconscious.”

The other two had similar responses.Greg Mitchell, a well-known education consultant, says boys can be hard to read when it comes to exam stress.“

As you may have noticed Act Like A Real Man spells out ALARM!,” he said.

Mr Mitchell says the first strategy on helping boys cope with stress is simply TLC: Think, Listen and Communicate. 

“Teach your child how to have a conversation every day. TLC is the most employable skill in the world and the best predictor of good relationships. It is also a window into that tortured little bundle of angst called your son’s brain that needs to be checked every day.”
Greg Mitchell

“Find a place where they’ll talk to you and repeat, repeat and repeat. In these conversations the key skill you need to consider is helping them name the main stressor. Usually boys state the obvious when it comes to being stressed like ‘I’m stressed because I have an exam’. This seems on face value to be reasonable, but often the stress occurs because they didn’t study, or didn’t understand the material, or because they think all their mates are really good at this and they are not,” says Mr Mitchell.

Mr Mitchell says that if the stress is becoming a routine, parents can help their sons by teaching them habits to deal with the stressor, such as effective study, planning and research.

I’ve found a good time and place to do this is in my son’s bedroom, with the door closed to shut out other distractions, after he’s had some time to relax after school but before he knuckles down to complete the evening’s homework.

I then check in with him again later in the evening to ensure he has done what he had planned. Around assessment time especially, this often involves reading his homework or making sure he is actively learning by testing him on material. Finding an aspect of the study material in which he may have a particular interest can be helpful, too.

From his experience as a psychotherapist, Scott Nodwell, who works a lot with young people at Claremont’s Elizabeth Clinic, advises boys to keep things in perspective and have balance.

He reminds us that stress and anxiety can be harsh task-masters, convincing us that studying without a break for hours on end "is the only way".

“What we know from research is that study breaks for exercise and other non-study activities are imperative, not only for concentration and eye-strain, but also for memory retention."
Scott Nodwell​

Mr Nodwell also says there's a big difference between stress (unhelpful) and eustress (helpful). “It is hopefully reassuring to know that some stress actually improves performance, physically and intellectually,” he says.

I’m sure we’ve all had experiences of achieving something we thought was beyond us when under pressure.But Mr Nodwell says that if we start feeling overwhelmed by stress, it's almost always that we're distorting the reality of the situation.Additionally, we are generally more scared of the outcomes of events than the events themselves. According to Mr Nodwell, being terrified of exams is usually related to the fear of failing, not the fear of actually sitting an exam.

Anxiety and stress tend to change how we interpret information - including how our future will play out. Mr Nodwell uses exams as an example -  we might temporarily convince ourselves that if we don't do well in a certain test, this will have a knock-on effect that will get in the way of career or other plans.

This is where parents can step in and inject some real-world perspective into often very limited teenage perceptions. While we want our children to be ambitious and motivated, sometimes we need to step in and remind them that there is a whole universe of opportunities beyond school and that a job doesn’t need to be perceived as prestigious to be a good job.And knowing where this fine line between motivating children and reassuring them comes from that daily (or almost daily for most busy parents) TLC advised by Mr Mitchell.He also recommends teaching boys simple ‘mental hygiene’ promoted in this YouTube video. Maybe this will stop our boys from having those nightmares my friend spoke about above!