Crunch Time

The stress of exams can affect the whole family, here’s how to manage it so everyone stays calm and focused.
By Talya Ressel

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As we enter the home stretch for the students of 2019, there is often an increase in anxiety, which affects not just the children, but also their parents and the family surrounding them. Exam time is one of those times where some anxiety is to be expected, given the emphasis placed on exams, especially the matric exams. But, what about those who aren’t actually writing the exams, yet are still feeling the pressure and its effects?
 
We know that anxiety can be difficult for a child to manage alone – it often overflows and affects those closest to them, so don’t be surprised if this exam period leaves you, the parent, feeling more stressed out and tense than your child.
 
5 tips for managing exam anxiety
Routine: During exam time do not give up on all rules, expectations or responsibilities you have set for your child. While you can make adjustments due to their study requirements, it is important that you keep up some consistency. This creates containment for their anxiety and also encourages the child to learn to balance their needs with other expectations of them. It also takes some of the pressure off. While these exams are important, they are not the “be all and end all” and the results are not the sole reflection of their abilities. Also, maintaining some of your normal routine and boundaries will reduce anxiety for the rest of the family.
 
Encourage proper self-care: It is important for your child to get enough sleep and proper nutrition, take breaks and have adequate exercise. Anxiety is fuelled when we stop taking care of ourselves, and while it may be tempting (or feel necessary) to forget everything else to try cram in some studying, it can actually have a negative effect on children’s wellbeing. The secret is to maintain a healthy balance, even more so when under stress. Some children prefer to study at night, while others prefer early mornings – it’s ok for their sleep cycle to differ from yours, as long as they are getting at least 7–8 hours of sleep. And make sure the rest of the family is practising self-care too!
 
Discuss coping strategies: Before crunch time hits, ask children what support they would like from you and encourage them to think of helpful ways to reduce their stress. You can prepare a list of options to help remind them when the anxiety starts rising. These strategies can include belly breathing; going for a walk; listening to their favourite song; blowing bubbles (yes, all ages will find it relaxing); drinking a cup of tea/hot chocolate in silence; or a big hug. Parents can make use of these strategies too and model how they are managing their own stress.
 
Listening, but not getting sucked into the story: With anxiety, it is easy to get stuck in “all or nothing” thinking such as “I will never pass this exam”, “I answered every question wrong”, or “I have totally messed up”, or “I have not studied at all”. It’s not helpful to dismiss concerns by saying everything will be fine, but what parents can do is listen to their concerns and acknowledge how hard it may feel at that moment. Children need to be reminded that they won’t always feel like this and that you are here for them, no matter what. Remembering that your child’s life will not solely be defined by these exams will also help reduce parents’ anxiety.
 
Control: For many parents, their own anxiety can skyrocket during these exams because of the lack of control they have over the situation. How much and when the child studies, how they apply themselves and what the outcome will be are some of the big things parents can’t control. And that can be terrifying! Nagging can often be a result of your anxiety, but it is not helpful to the child – it only puts more pressure on them or makes them resistant. As discussed above, there are some things that you can do to support and guide them. No doubt you will have already done many things in the years leading up to this that will have a positive impact, but right now, you have to take a step back and let them fly.
 
It’s not easy, for you or them, but by helping them manage the stress and anxiety these exams bring, you are helping them master important coping tools for life. And that I believe is far more valuable than any maths equation or history date!

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