How to help your teen beat exam stress

Everything is really up in the air at the moment – like, really up in the air. Schools have just announced that they will be closed until at least the 31st of January and online learning has been scheduled to start this Monday.

All week long, the radio has been flooded with worried mothers, eloquent and afraid teens and concerned fathers, all in fear that the exams like Leaving Cert and GCSEs will not go ahead this year. The worry that the student’s ‘fair shot’ at the exams has been compromised is not an unfounded one.

Female student suffering from headache in library

As one impressively well-spoken Leaving Cert pointed out this week; these students have already had to learn online for three months last year during their fifth year. As anyone who has gone through the Leaving Cert knows, fifth year lays the foundation for exam material. The basics and then some are covered. And while online learning efforts by teachers have for the most part been innovative, creative and has shown the lengths our teachers will go to in order to connect with their students, it cannot be denied that it is not the same as learning in a classroom.

Those disrupted 5th years are now 6th years, primed to be disrupted again, at a time that is already filled with worry and anxiety. The mocks are on the horizon and for many, they are a chance to gauge where their grades are currently at with each subject and to highlight areas that need work. With this – very necessary but very messy – interruption in face-to-face learning, stress levels may rocket up, making the entire situation seem completely overwhelming. Here are some tips and tricks to help you and your teen manage stress levels surrounding Covid and exams.

Woman Sitting in Front of Macbook

Look out for the signs

Stress will always manifest itself. We just need to keep an eye out for the signs of it in day to day life so that we can address and combat it. Common symptoms of stress are;

  • worrying a lot
  • feel tense
  • have headaches and stomach pains
  • not sleeping well
  • be irritable
  • losing interest in food or eating more than normal
  • not enjoying activities they previously enjoyed
  • being negative and having a low mood
  • feeling hopeless about the future

These are fairly common symptoms at the moment, with everything going on in the world. But when they are persistent and related to exams, this is something that needs to be talked about. Keeping an open channel of communication with your child about how they are feeling and even opening a dialogue with the teachers in school can be extremely helpful to alleviate fears of failure or feeling un-prepared. When approaching teachers, it is important that your teen knows you are doing this and is involved in the conversation, or else they may feel ambushed.


Woman Covering Her Two Eyes

Regulating your child’s nutrition intake is particularly important in times of stress. Convenient, high sugar, ‘power’ snacks may provide temporary energy and study fuel, but once the crash arrives, your teen is left feeling irritable or hyperactive and unsettled. A nutritious meal that is full of healthier versions of food your child likes will keep them going for longer, help strengthen their stress-compromised immune system and help them avoid a mid-afternoon sugar-crash. Where possible, have your teen contribute to the meal prep for the week to help choose food they want to eat.


Person in White Shirt With Brown Wooden Frame

It can be easy in times of stress for your teen to simply cram every hour of the day with as much studying as possible. However, that is not always what is best. The necessary down time is needed for students to retain information.

Most teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep each night. In order to aid their ability to fall and stay asleep, we have a few tips;

  • Stay off screens;

Similarly, to how not getting enough daylight during the day can de-regulate you, getting too much blue light at the wrong time – light literally designed to wake you up – can ruin your chances of drifting off naturally. Even if it’s something that feels relaxing – watching TV, scrolling Pinterest or Instagram, it isn’t relaxing for your brain. It becomes stimulated and makes it that bit harder to switch off at your designated sleep time. Experts recommend reading a book or doing a meditation for at least an hour before bed. But if that’s totally impossible, some tech has an orange light or night mode installed for these reasons. They’re still not ideal, but if you want to pick up your kindle to read before bed, turning on the blue-light filter might be a good idea.

  • Regulate bedtime

The first step in getting a night’s sleep is regulating your body. If their bedtime is a little all over the place right now, they’re not alone. It is essential that your body and brain begin to expect a shut-down and wake-up call at the same time every day. Yes, even the weekends. We’re all guilty of enjoying our sleep ins and late nights on our days off but be sure to only indulge in those occasionally. They disrupt the training that your brain is undergoing to move into a state suitable for sleep and rising.

  • Essential oils

Find some relaxing scents to help your teen drift off to sleep. A little lavender oil on a pillowcase is ideal for soothing and sending your teen off to a deep, relaxing sleep. Try to stick to scents like lavender and rose geranium, known for their anxiety-reducing scents.

Focus on what’s important

Person Behind Books

When we worry for our child, it can be easy to forget that they are undergoing a tense time in their lives too. We feel we know best how to create a good focused environment for them and so urge them to do laundry, clean their rooms, make their beds.

When your child is revising all day, they are mentally exhausted. Some things are bound to slip and at that time, it is the family’s jo to pick up the slack and let them focus on what’s really important at that moment.

If they are not revising or studying in the way that you used to or want them to, there is generally a reason for this. They have been advised by their teachers, or tutors, the experts in this area, of how is best to proceed, or else they have found a style of revision that work for them.

A way you can help is by having somewhere quiet and comfortable for them to study, or by making it simpler to access their place of study, whether that’s the library, the school or a friend’s house.

Small and frequent rewards can make all the difference in this long journey. As my old principal used to say – ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself.’ We all need encouragement and small rewards to keep us going through a long arduous task. Ensure they are taking down time, calling with friends, watching a movie with family, reading for pleasure. These things are small but make a difference.

Talk about it

Man in Black Jacket Sitting on Brown Couch

Don’t treat exam stress as the elephant in the room or a fire to be put out. It’s generally quite inevitable that exam stress will be felt and it’s not a failure on yours or their part when it is experienced. It is important to talk it out, to address their concerns, their fears and even just how sick of it they all are. These worries can be addressed in a variety of ways; familiarity with the exam hall or exam papers can combat fear of the unknown and showing them how much they have already revised and achieved can alleviate the feeling of being overwhelmed. But what is essential is to get it all out in the open, rather than avoiding it and letting stressful thoughts fester.


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Fiona Murphy is a freelance writer, specialising in book-related content, fiction and poetry. She can be found drinking tea, craving tapas or attempting to finish her never-ending-novel.



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