It’s perfectly natural for your child to be worried about taking exams and how they will perform – you might even be a little worried too! In small doses, anxiety can be a good thing: helping your child to focus, get motivated to study and even recall answers they were unaware they’d learnt. Prolonged periods or bouts of intense anxiety may have a negative impact, but there are lots of ways you can help them manage this anxiety and use routines to help keep them calm. In some cases there can be times when anxiety reaches exceptional levels and professional support is required. How can you tell the difference?
Signs of anxiety and stress
It’s good to be aware of the signs of anxiety and stress so you can watch out for them. A change in behaviour for a day or two might be nothing to worry about, but if you notice a regular change, then it’s usually a sign that something is wrong.
Some of the more common signs of anxiety include:
Losing interest in things they’ve previously enjoyed;
Behaving in the opposite way to usual – quiet children can become very chatty, chatty children can get withdrawn;
Being grumpy and irritable;
Lots of headaches and digestive problems (stomach aches, diarrhoea, constipation, vomiting etc);
Worrying all the time, this can show itself in only picturing negative outcomes (what if I fail, I’m going to fail, I can’t do this);
Talking over and over the same concern and being unable to either stop thinking about it or to find relief;
Physical symptoms (sweaty palms, shaking, fast heartbeat, aching muscles);
Restlessness and being unable to stay still;
Inability to concentrate (such as taking in what’s happening in a TV programme);
Remember to keep perspective. If they have had several late nights, they are likely to be tired and this increases irritability. If they’ve been exercising, they might have aching muscles. If they’ve just run to meet you, they’ll have a fast heart rate. Individual or a short-term combination of the above symptoms are normal.
How to help
If you notice your child is suffering, it’s time to help them. That doesn’t always mean you stepping in (that could add to the anxiety) although it’s good to let them know you’ve noticed something’s wrong and give them a chance to talk to you if they want to. Avoid broaching the subject in front of others, this could make them feel embarrassed or inadequate and make them feel worse (they might think they are doing a job good of hiding it). Don’t forget, the aim isn’t to eliminate anxiety but to teach them how to manage it.
There are two ways to help – some short term remedies and long term strategies. For the former, encourage them to take part in an activity that will provide a distraction so they stop thinking about whatever is making them anxious. Giving the brain some time out from worrying can help obtain a better perspective later.
Physical activities – It doesn’t matter what activity - dancing, football, swimming, walking - so long as it’s something they enjoy, gets their endorphins flowing and requires focus so the mind is concentrating on something different. Team games are great, as connectivity and communications with others is restorative.
Music – Music has an amazing ability to transport you to a different time and place. Anything that evokes positive memories and experiences is a good thing. To reduce anxiety, it’s better to listen to relaxing and calming music rather than something that stimulates
Talking – it may not be to you! A sibling, grandparent, family friend or friend at school or perhaps a charity chatline. Expressing worries out loud can sometimes make them feel less significant than when they’re playing on loop in the mind. Talking aloud also encourages finding their own solutions – prompts such as ‘what would need to happen to make you feel better’, can help them reframe to seeking solutions rather than dwelling on troubles.
Laughing – releases feel good hormones, so encourage them to watch an episode of a favourite comedy or some You Tube clips so they can laugh out loud.
The second way to help is to provide an opportunity for them to learn some proven techniques which help reduce anxiety. It’s a really good idea for your child to practise some of these methods when they’re not anxious, so they can familiarise themselves with the approaches and get comfortable with the experience and how it makes them feel. Then, should anxiety strike, it’s something they’re relaxed about doing. Regularly practising relaxation techniques helps keep anxiety at bay too. Some good choices are:
Breathing techniques are an effective way to regulate physical symptoms caused by stress. Learning slow breathing and how to take deep breaths has an immediate physical effect and is particularly useful in preventing anxiety escalating.
Meditation, visualisation and yoga all encourage positive breathing techniques. Apps like Headspace can be loaded on the phone so your child readily has help to hand in any place at any time. Practising yoga regularly has been proven to improve the heart rate as well as physical strength. It takes a lot of concentration to get the positions right, which prevents the mind from thinking about other things. Meditation transports the mind to a completely different place and experience.
Breathing, yoga and meditation can be done in short or long bursts and alone or in groups, which makes them ideal to put into practise when on the go or needing a ready tool when nerves strike.
Herbs and smells – For centuries we’ve used herbs and smells to invoke different atmospheres. Essential oils can be burnt in diffusers, added to baths, placed on candles, mixed with water as a spritz or poured on a tissue (great for on the go and to pop in a pocket) and are inexpensive to buy. Some useful staples are: lemon (promotes concentration and calming); lavender (reduces stress and can help sleep), jasmine (uplifting and calming), peppermint (invigorating so helps to clear the mind) and rosemary (acts as a pick-me-up). Herbal teas are a great caffeine free hot drink and, as well as benefiting from the smell, the herbs work within the system too. Try camomile, peppermint, lavender or lemon balm
Where to get support
Don’t be tough on yourself and expect to have all the solutions for your child’s needs. It’s absolutely fine to call on professionals to help you help them. Professional support includes more than counsellors and psychiatrists (although both these approaches can be helpful). There’s a range of professional options available including:
Teachers at school – both in an academic capacity to help understand subjects better, as tutors to help create better ways of working outside school and pastoral experts who can help with emotional issues;
Some schools have an independent counsellor available with whom your children can talk in confidence (i.e. they will not relay the information to the school);
Peer support networks – these can be very helpful as speaking to someone of a similar age can sometimes feel easier than speaking to an adult, or speaking to someone just slightly older, who has more recently been through a similar experience can be very reassuring;
Charities – most now offer both online and telephone support. This anonymity (i.e. not being face-to-face) can make talking over problems and worries easier. Anxiety UK and Mind are great places to start.
If your child is showing several signs of anxiety on a regular basis (several days each week) over a prolonged period of time (several weeks) then do seek help from external support services and a good place to start might be visiting your GP.
A note for you
We’ve got lots more ideas of what you can do at home to help your teen with stress, so do take a look at The Parents' Guide to Study and Exam Revision - GCSE or The Parents' Guide to Study and Exam Revision Sixth Form:
We always love to hear from you, so do let us know if there are any subjects you’d like us to chat to you about. Stay safe and keep happy,
Vanessa Green - Vanessa@theparentsguideto.co.uk