Exams and eating elephants
It’s that time of year again with many schools across the country testing students and preparing for their final months in secondary school, working towards achieving the best GCSE results they can. Whilst many young people can cope with the pressure, for others it can be overwhelming and an incredibly stressful time.
We all know that some stress can be good and helpful, it can help us to cope with difficult situations keep us alert and motivated and even improve performance. However, when stress is prolonged it can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. Worries such as thinking about what questions will come up and what to do if you don’t get the grades can be very normal. But for some young people, this can become so overwhelming it results in problems with sleeping, eating, focusing, becoming withdrawn, having extreme moods, feeling panicky and anxious. To make matters worse, a study conducted by Edge Hill University in 2012 found that teenagers who get more stressed about their GCSEs are more likely to get lower results than their calmer peers. So, it seems that getting too stressed about not achieving well enough can be a self-fulfilling prophecy!
Many young people find talking to a counsellor can really help to offload their fears and come up with strategies to help build their resilience, but sadly there is a distinct lack of funding for school counsellors in secondary schools. If you think that your child could do with some extra support to cope with things, a counsellor may be a helpful option and something that you could discuss with them.
Here are a few things you can do to help cope with exams:
1) Be supportive and keep perspective – as well as considering counselling for your teenager, try to put yourself in their shoes. Young people are often told in school that GCSEs are one of the most important things in their lives and it can shape their future careers – what enormous pressure at such a young age! Show an interest in what your child is doing and if they want to talk about it great and if not, then let them know that that’s OK too. You may find they are open to you for more support if they don’t feel any extra pressure from you to perform. Whilst it would be wonderful if all our children were naturally academically gifted, we all know of very successful people who didn’t fare well in school.
2) Get creative – if your child is struggling with subjects, it may be because their learning style is different to the way they are being taught and not that they are lazy! If they don’t like a subject, try to explore this with them. You may find it is because they find that subject harder than other subjects and there may be ways to help with this by getting creative and thinking outside the box.
3) Make time for breaks – psychologists have found that we can only really concentrate properly on something for about 45 - 50 minutes (hence why counselling sessions are traditionally 50 minutes long!) So, taking breaks helps you to stay refreshed. Try to incorporate a completely different activity after study time, schedule in something fun and you may find more focus when returning to studying.
4) Night-night, sleep tight – why is it that despite a perfectly honed study plan, we can find ourselves cramming study in at midnight with all the things we should have done in the daytime? Getting a good sleep is important to helping you stay refreshed, alert and able to cope through this difficult time. Try and set clear boundaries for study time and fun time so life doesn’t feel consumed by studying.
5) Failing to plan, is planning to fail – spend some time figuring out what needs to be learnt and work out a plan, break it down into small chunks and focusing on each part one step at a time. Consider working out a plan together, your teenager will be grateful for your support when you show an interest, especially when you insist on adding in fun stuff! Finally, someone once said to me "you can’t eat an elephant in one sitting, you need to take lots of time and small bites". Whilst this may be one of the strangest analogies I have ever heard, it is certainly true (and can be applied to so many things in life!).So if you are feeling overwhelmed... stop, take a breath, you still have time to make a plan.
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About Julia Summers
Julia Watson is a counsellor and psychotherapist working near Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Julia has lots of experience working with adults, children and young people and is a strong advocate for good quality mental health services for all. With a lifelong interest in psychology, she is passionate about empowering people to achieve what they want.