Parents' Guide to the Exam Season #2 - Planning for Success

#2 of my series of 8 blogs focused on helping teens and young adults deal with exam stress and anxiety.

This week the focus is on how parents, carers and guardians can help teens manage anxiety by planning for success, and working in time to rest and socialise.

Have Realistic Expectations

Exams and qualifications are about your children’s ability, goals, and aspirations. Not yours.

Make sure that you and your child have realistic expectations for the outcome of exams. Discussions with teachers, your child and your partner or spouse will help you gauge what outcome it’s reasonable hope for.

All you can ask your child to do is their very best. You know well before the exam is taken whether they will be a natural Oxbridge scholar, a brilliant mathematician, or a natural linguist.

You will also know if they can strip and put together a car engine, have extraordinary balance and agility, can paint like Leonardo da Vinci or have the heart and soul of Mother Theresa.  

Acknowledge all their unique gifts and qualities before you start talking to your teen about setting realistic goals. These may be achieving 1 GCSE or 4 A* A levels.

Once you and your child have some sense of goals are achievable and realistic, you will be better able to help them plan a study schedule that will aim to meet (and with the right attitude to learning possibly exceed) those expectations.

Creating a Timetable Together

Most teens do not have a brilliant sense of time or great planning skills. Having a realistic a plan and sticking to it really will help them maintain good mental health and reduce anxiety; however a plan that is too rigid and demanding will have the opposite effect.

It's tempting to create a strict timetable for the exam season, and to push and nag your child to study. This is a poor management strategy for adults, so it is highly unlikely to reap positive results with your teens. All that will achieve is added anxiety.

Negotiation is key. If for some reason your child is resistant to your help, find another appropriate adult to help them… an older sibling, an uncle or an aunt.

Planning well in advance breaks down what needs to be learnt in to smaller chunks and makes the whole process of studying feel much more manageable. It will give your teen a sense of being in control and will reduce anxiety.

Make an agreed time to discuss a study plan with your teen as early as you can during the summer term. Explain that you will do all you can to help and support them. If your teens are given some adult responsibility to put together a timetable and a plan for studying, including times for rest, social life and family life, they will be fully engaged in the process and will be much more likely to take responsibility for their own learning.

Regular study habits and patterns are helpful. But it is also important to connect with others in order to maintain mental health and to reduce anxiety. Aim to negotiate a balance between disciplined study periods, social engagement and entertainment (I would include using social media in that as it is highly addictive and time consuming but I cover that later in this series).

You can offer to plan or review the study schedule with your teen. Once a plan is in place, you may be able to think up some rewards together, for example if they manage to stick to the plan, more or less, for each week, they can spend more time socialising or playing computer games.

If you have the sort of child who creates their own study timetable and is naturally studious, just make sure he or she does plan in down time. Sometimes a studious, thoughtful child is an anxious child so do make sure that your child factors in time to rest, relax and socialise. Explain how important rest is for their mental health and wellbeing, and for their ability to learn effectively.

Time Management and Overloading

Now you’ve had the planning session, your child may need some support and encouragement to stick to timetables.

Time management may not be your child’s strength. It’s harder than ever to manage time, especially for young forming minds. Wall-to-wall sport, films and Netflix series, social media and computer games available 24/7.  There are so many other things your teen may want to be doing other than studying.

Recognising how hard it is for teens to balance their studies with sport, socialising, creative activities and family time will help to you set the tone for a respectful discussion. Remember they are facing many more pressures than you probably did at the same age.

You may see your teens making poor judgements or mistakes. Instinctively you want to tell them what to do. But think back to your teen years. How effective do you think that strategy will be?

Ask your children what pressures they are experiencing and what solutions they can come up with to alleviate some of those pressures. How might they reduce their social media usage? How can they make sure they get enough sleep? How can they find time for friendship and socialising. What help and support would they like?

They know intellectually what they should and should not be doing but remember from Blog # 1 in this series that their frontal lobes are not fully turned, they need to time to think, reflect, and come up with solutions. So pose the questions and give them a few days to come up with ideas.

And do listen to what they have to say. You may be surprised at how this open approach encourages a different and more positive response from your anxious teen.

Next Week, Tip 3 focuses on the neuroscience of multi-tasking and the impact of social media


I am practising Solution Focused Hypnotherapy at The Wellbeing Clinic, Headington, Oxford. My first consultation is free so if you think I can help you manage your own stress and anxiety, or help your teen manage their stress and anxiety during the exam season, do get in touch.

I can also help teens and young adults with study skills, NLP goal setting and techniques to stay calm and in control during this exam season.

Subscribe to my Sense-Ability blog for 8 tips for parents and carers supporting teens during the stressful exam season.


Photo @hannahollinger courtesy of Unsplash