The Leaving Cert has finally come around after a year of ups and downs and twists and turns. Our teens have had it tough this year, with lots of uncertainty surrounding not only exams and academic pursuits, but also personal and social lives. An already stressful year was made all the more stressful by the added strain of the pandemic and with far fewer social outlets to relieve the pressure many of our teens are feeling the heat at the moment.
It’s totally normal for our teens to feel a little stressed out around now, but how stressed is too stressed and what can we do to help them during this challenging time in their lives?
Look out for the signs
This is one of the first things to do. Tress is normal, but it can manifest itself in day to day life in disruptive ways and we need to help them address and combat it. Common symptoms of stress are worrying a lot, feeling tense, having headaches and stomach pains, not sleeping well, being irritable, losing interest in food or eat more than normal, not enjoying activities they previously enjoyed, being negative and have a low mood and feeling hopeless about the future.
And while these are fairly common experiences for a lot of us at the moment, with everything going on in the world, it’s when they are persistent and related to exams, that it is something that needs to be talked about.
Keeping an open channel of communication with your child about how they are feeling and even opening a dialogue with the teachers in school can be extremely helpful to alleviate fears of failure or feeling un-prepared. When approaching teachers, it is important that your teen knows you are doing this and is involved in the conversation, or else they may feel ambushed.
One way you can really be there for them throughout exams is by taking care of essential needs like food so they don’t have to worry about it. During times of high stress, our diet can be essential in regulating us. Convenient, high sugar, ‘power’ snacks may provide temporary energy and study fuel, but once the crash arrives, your teen is left feeling irritable or hyperactive and unsettled. A nutritious meal that is full of healthier versions of food your child likes will keep them going for longer, help strengthen their stress-compromised immune system and help them avoid a mid-afternoon sugar-crash.
Where possible, have your teen contribute to the meal prep for the week to help choose food they want to eat, which will make them more likely to take time out of their busy schedule to eat. Participating in family dinners is also an important ritual to maintain throughout exam time, so they get a little down time and socialisation throughout the day. It’s an important chance to catch up and check in with how they’re doing.
Sleep can easily be compromised by stress and even study time during exams, but it’s essential to the functioning of your teen’s brain so that they’re exam ready. Sleeping during stressful times is easier said than done, but there are some tips and tricks that can help them to get their 8 hours necessary to retain and convey all the information they’re studying.
Staying off screens late at night is always a good start, though harder these days when teen’s social lives are via a screen. But too much blue light at the wrong time – light literally designed to wake you up – can ruin your chances of drifting off naturally. Even if it’s something that feels relaxing – watching TV, scrolling Pinterest or Instagram - it isn’t relaxing for your brain. It becomes stimulated and makes it that bit harder to switch off at your designated sleep time. Experts recommend reading a book or doing a meditation for at least an hour before bed.
Essential oils can be super relaxing and can help your teen drift off to sleep. A little lavender on a pillowcase is ideal for soothing and conducive a deep, relaxing sleep. Try to stick to scents like lavender and rose geranium, known for their anxiety-reducing scents.
Focus on what’s important
When we get worried about our child, our own stress levels can rise, causing us to become irritated or short with our teen. When we feel we know best how to create a good focused environment for them and so urge them to do laundry, clean their rooms, make their beds and they don’t follow our advice it can feel super frustrating.
But when your child is revising all day, they are mentally exhausted. Some things are bound to slip and at that time, it is the family’s jo to pick up the slack and let them focus on what’s really important to them at that moment.
If they are not revising or studying in the way that you used to or want them to, there is generally a reason for this. They have been advised by their teachers, or tutors, the experts in this area, of how is best to proceed, or else they have found a style of revision that work for them. A way you can help is by having somewhere quiet and comfortable for them to study, or by making it simpler to access their place of study, whether that’s the library, the school or a friend’s house.
Make them take time out
They won’t want to and will likely resist, but they can’t cram in more study with every single free hour, or else they’ll crash and burn. Small and frequent rewards can make all the difference in this long journey. As my old principal used to say – ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself.’ We all need encouragement and small rewards to keep us going through a long arduous task. Ensure they are taking down time, going for a walk, calling with friends, watching a movie with family or even reading for pleasure. These things are small but make a difference.
Talk about it
Exam stress isn’t something that can be swept under the rug. If it’s being felt, it’s not a sign that they’re not prepared or that you didn’t do your job – it’s a natural accompaniment to a big and stressful life event. It’s important to address fears and concerns, rather than bottling these feelings up so they become catastrophised.
Sometimes the idea of it is worse than the reality, so there’s a few things you can do to ground them beforehand. Familiarity with the exam hall or exam papers can combat fear of the unknown and showing them how much they have already revised and achieved can alleviate the feeling of being overwhelmed. But what is essential is to get it all out in the open, rather than avoiding it and letting stressful thoughts fester.