Helping your Teen manage exam stress
The sun is shining and summer is coming. But it’s not all BBQ’s and beaches for university students. Over 80% of UK university students suffer from stress and anxiety, 45% struggle with depression, and 1 in 5 have even had suicidal thoughts, and as they are entering into their summer exam period, it can get even worse.
If you have a child in university, you are probably spending a big chunk of your time worrying about how they are coping with the pressure, if they are eating properly and if they have made any friends. Maybe you remember how challenging it was to stay balanced when you were at university, or perhaps you’ve seen a change in their behaviour and it’s got you concerned. Supporting your loved one after they have flown the nest is not always easy, especially when you might be separated by distance. But there are ways that you can help them to stay positive, healthy and happy without disrespecting their need for autonomy.
As a counsellor with a lot of experience in helping treat anxiety, stress, and depression, I’ve created a short list of a few ways that you can help your teenager to stay calm, composed and confident whilst fighting against exam stress.
Put yourself in their shoes
Going to university often seems like a great adventure. Chances are they were looking forward to becoming more independent and living outside of the family home, making lots of new friends and enjoying the dazzling and exciting nightlife. The reality often shocks them as the glamorous life they are expecting isn’t reality. What they are faced with instead is a vast amount of assignments, deadlines, exams, money worries, and social pressures. The desire to fit in and make friends can cause students to spiral into unhappiness alone, but when combined with all the other stresses university students face, it’s no surprise that depression and anxiety rates within the alumni are so high.
Regardless of how much you warned them that university wouldn’t be all rainbows and unicorns, it’s important that you can understand their disappointment and surprise. It may have been naive of them but you must remember that they are young and in their eyes this was their big opportunity. They will likely grieve for the experience they were expecting. It’s your job to help them to see the positives of their time in university without making them feel that you are interfering. It’s important that your child is able to build their own resilience and do things their own way. Just try to reassure them and make them see the bright side.
Help them look to the future
To a teenager, a university can feel like it will last a lifetime. As a parent, you need to help them realise that in just a few years this stressful part of their lives will be over without making them feel that you are trying to talk down to them. Encourage them to think of the future and plan out their career goals but let them make the decisions and lead the way. Helping them to find something to look forward to can really help them to feel more positive about their lives and stop them from getting lost in their current feelings.
Dream boards (also known as goal boards) can be a great way to help keep them focused. Get them to visualize what they want in the future and find pictures from magazines and the internet that represent them. Stick them together into a collage and encourage them to put it into their bedroom. It can help to see physical representations of their goals as it makes them seem more real. This can be especially useful during times when their exam stress is at its maximum. They will be reminded of what their life could hold if they stay on the right path and keep trying their best. It can even help to improve their daily mood!
Encourage them to open up
Talking to a teenager can be very difficult – especially one who is depressed and anxious. A lot of students find that they are too proud to admit to their families that they are struggling with exam stress, depression or anxiety. You should try to keep your relationship close with regular phone calls, Skype chats, and visits. You need to make sure that your teenager can trust you fully and feel that they can discuss anything with you. Sadly this is often harder than it sounds and if you can feel your child is pulling away from you let them. Pestering them to share their feelings can lead to your relationship becoming splintered and your child needs to be able to attempt to deal with their issues on their own without you pushing them. This is an important part of becoming an adult. They need to discover how to be resilient and how to manage their issues. You just need to give them the opportunity to discuss their feelings without making them feel that they have to.
If you are really struggling to get through to your son or daughter, and they are not coping well, you could try looking into therapy. A trained therapist can really help as your child can talk freely and honestly about the issues they are facing. For example, if they are feeling pressured into taking drugs by their peers they might not want to talk to you about it as it could lead to repercussions, like you worrying more, or even official action being taken against the students. You need to understand that there are some topics that your child will feel uncomfortable talking to you about. This doesn’t mean you are failing them or that you aren’t close. Sometimes intimate issues are easier to talk about to a stranger in confidence than someone you love who you fear could feel disappointed in you.
Offer to help them
There are many ways to indirectly help someone who is suffering from exam stress, depression or anxiety. You need to try to identify what is the cause of your child’s stress and subtly help them where you can. You need to be tact and make sure they don’t feel that you are trying to get involved. For example, if you know that they have struggled to make friends in the past, keep in regular contact with them and encourage them to meet up with their old friends to make them feel less alone. Whereas if you know that cooking has always been an issue for them, try taking them some precooked meals that they can freeze and reheat. These little things can make all the difference.
Encourage good habits
Try to help your child develop good daily routines. Ideally, you should introduce these to your child early on but it’s never too late. Things as simple as staying well-groomed and going to bed at a reasonable time can have a huge effect on their mental health. Other habits like a balanced diet and regular exercise can also help to keep them feeling happier. A lot of students complain that staying fit and healthy whilst in university is a challenge due to their tight budgets. Encourage them to go for a run in the local park and give them a recipe book full of cheap but tasty healthy meals. You won’t be able to force them to do anything but if you give them the right tools and ideas you might find that they do it.
If you are worried about your child’s mental health and think that they may be struggling with exam stress, depression or anxiety, a mood journal may help. It’s a very simple concept. Every day they just jot in how they have been feeling and any issues that they have faced. Mood Journals are used for a variety of mental health issues, from Bipolar Disorder to Depression, and are highly recommended. They encourage the author to discover patterns in their behaviour and moods and identify the triggers that cause these feelings. It can be especially helpful if your child suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder or Exam Stress as they can identify it themselves by looking back through their diary. The best way your child can realise they aren’t coping well is if they notice it themselves. Nobody likes to be told that they are failing and you need to let them come to you. Pick up a nice notepad and a special pen and ask them to keep a journal that they can look back on in the future to log their experience of university. Not only can it be helpful to their mental state but it also provides a lovely keepsake.
Help them to unwind
When your child is at university they can burn themselves out trying to prepare for exams, pay bills and keep up with their social circles. One way you can help them is by encouraging them to take regular breaks. Staring at a computer screen, working long hours and binge drinking can all have a negative effect on their mental health and lead to exam stress, anxiety, and depression.
If they don’t need to be on campus, or can leave over the summer or winter break, invite them home and help them to address their exam stress, depression or anxiety in a safe and familiar setting with you there to help them. Giving them some time back in their childhood home surrounded by people who love them can help them to deal with their feelings and return back to university feeling more positive and productive. But it is important to remember that ultimately it’s their decision how they manage their time and stress. You can offer help but do not be disappointed if they choose another path.
If you think that you would benefit from speaking with a therapist then contact me today for more information. I specialize in people-centered therapy and am based near Warrington. My office is easily accessible from Chester, Altrincham, Knutsford, Northwich, and Tarporley.