Exam Stress? Self-care Tips

graduatesSTRESS, the very word is defined as significance, meaning, emphasis, consequence, weight, value and worth, all of which could apply to the taking examinations. And then there is the other meaning of stress … And that’s the kind I am concerned with here.

Young people across the globe are currently in the throws of preparing for exams. In my own home there is an atmosphere of ‘now or never’; the days are slipping away on the revision timetable, posted on the fridge. Gone is the opportunity to fob me off with pleads of “I’ve got plenty of time Mum, chill”.

I am trying to be chilled, but with two out of three of my children taking exams, I’m very aware of a delicate balance to be struck in terms of encouragement versus provoking more stress. I can feel the pull to ask “Are you sure you are doing enough?”, an internal voice I am trying to ignore.

One child will hear your words as nagging another as a reminder to push on. It is easy to say too much and in doing so inadvertently lump on more pressure. In a bid to becalm our parental anxieties, ‘holding’ our own negative feelings around exams and choosing to keep them to ourselves, or sharing them with someone other than our child, may be a better outcome for all concerned.

Not every student feels they can, or even want to, work for exams and we know many successful, happy people have not, but what if you suspect your child is lazy, avoidant or simply disorganised? It would be understandable if you feel you can’t just sit by and watch it happen. I believe, as a parent we have a duty of care – to support and notice when things are wrong?

I don’t profess to have all the answers to this dilemma and individual circumstances will vary, however, it may help to sit down together and have a face-to-face chat with your son or daughter. It sounds obvious, but how often do we do that?

Choose a time and place when you will not be interrupted by marauding siblings, and a location that offers a neutral setting. Aim to keep your tone respectful, not accusing and be prepared to listen without interrupting. You could try the following questions:

  • How are you feeling about the exams at the moment?
  • What helpful advice would you give yourself at this time?
  • Is there anything I can do to help you prepare?

Try not to take it personally if your child is not forthcoming in their response; we know it is normal for teenagers to be obtuse. You could notice, “You look a little sad”. Or if they react defensively/with anger you could likewise acknowledge this and be curious about what they imagine might be giving rise to those feelings?

Be prepared to listen and show you understand, perhaps mirroring back what you’ve heard, “I hear you are feeling really anxious, that’s understandable”.

If your child will not say anything and you are non-the-wiser by the end of the ‘chat’ let them know that you are there for them and will do your best to be supportive; the act of taking time for the chat and being interested in him supports this.

exam room

Exams are an isolating experience, even when you are spending some time with friends who are studying, ultimately only you can devote the hours required to learn and absorb information, then face the stomach churning day and the intense, nerve jangling experience of the exam itself.

It may help to acknowledge together what makes exams so stressful – the combination of factors playing out in the mix. A selection that comes to mind are:

  • So much importance being placed on the outcome of the exams and uncertainty around the future if the predicted grades are not achieved and university/college places are lost.
  • Being with other students who are similarly stressed out, bemoaning, even crying is not helpful and can create a hysterical backdrop,
  • Giving up or missing out on other more tempting activities can be hard to do, even for a comparatively short period.
  • Watch out for displacement activities such as spending hours on social media. Agree a how best to manage this; suggest that phones and devices are put to one side might be helpful, going somewhere else without distractions sometimes is another possibility (a library or quiet café for example).girl studying in cafe
  • We know that lack of power and control over even the smallest situations can be stress provoking for human beings and young people with less experience and stoicism to draw upon can be profoundly affected or overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in the exam process. Therefore, feeling in control over the build up may help.So here are some practical tips to support both of you:
  • Self care should be high on the priority list; good sleep, nourishment (fish or take omega 3’s optimises brain function) cut down on sugar intake to avoid high/lows caused by glycaemic dips, eat whole foods regularly to maintain performance.
  • This is not a time for weight loss or as my daughter’s teacher put it, “No ball dress dieting, and don’t fall in love, break up with your boyfriend or get sun burnt”.
  • Limit alcohol intake or cut out altogether if possible, it will inhibit clarity and encourages low mood afterwards.
  • Have a timetable of the days between now and the exams; plan what work will be done when, but also schedule in down time in which to exercise and relax.
  • Be kind and compassionate to yourself during this time and remember this is an opportunity to show the world what you are capable of.
  • Envisage yourself going into the exam sitting down, picking up your pen and successfully doing what you need to do.
  • Some people find alternative medicine helps with exam nerves and take Arnica or calming herbal remedies.
  • Plan some treats for after the exams and look forward to putting the whole thing behind you, kick back and live a little.
  • Remember that whatever the outcome of exams, they are just that, not life threatening, and there will be a path to follow. Often exams can be re sat if you feel you could have done better. Likewise, it could be time to have a rethink about future dreams and aspirations.

Finally, good luck and please comment if you have anything to add.


Empty Nest?

Are you a paid up member of the “I hate change” club? If so, welcome to the majority – you are far from alone. The comments around losses I’ve encountered in the last few weeks reflect the fact that many of us dislike change.

Specifically, a number of friends are experiencing the departure of a child to college or university (and yes I know they are not strictly speaking children, but it still feels like they are). Cries of “I’m lost without them” resound in the heads of parents at this time of year. Hasty goodbyes in cramped, strange smelling spaces are combined with squished kisses somewhere between the eye socket and hair line and mum’s look away to hide moist eyes. Last minute pleas include, “Don’t forget to eat” and “When shall we speak?” Returning home the house can seem eerily different and empty of the energy and presence you took for granted. VARIOUS

Have you experienced a young family member moving out? If so you may be struggling to reconcile how your most treasured offspring will survive in that featureless, one room or noisy ‘halls of residence’. Those with a half full ‘nest’ may find the remaining siblings notice the difference too as the dynamics of the family experience a seismic shift. For better or worse, everyone feels the losses along with the pull to accept, adjust and adapt.

Most subtle are the emotional changes; for example, one friend noticed her youngest son had pacified and distracted with humour, when things got tense at home; she wasn’t aware of this until he’d left. Most of us have a role in the family system, maybe the yeller has departed; who will ‘carry the can’ and voice the family’s anger now? This could be a positive outcome of course, when a sibling and parent are alike they sometimes clash and it can be a relief when one of them has gone. That’s not easy to admit to anyone let alone yourself.

Parents usually find it challenging when their kids leave home for the first time because it is a big deal, and many changes require many adjustments. When the transition includes moving cities, or even countries, it is HUGE for the student too and in your heart you know it could be very tough for them. Speaking as a parent, I’d say that can be scary … I know expats who’ve ended up with themselves on one continent and two offspring at colleges in two others! What a lot to handle practically and emotionally.

Meanwhile, my friend Roz (a cup half full kind of gal) has just dropped her eldest son off to live in Bath, where he will begin three years of college life. She sees the positives; excited for him and his new life-style. With two other children in her care, she feels the positive impact on the domestic scene. Let’s face it when the first one goes there is the prospect of less washing, cleaning, ironing, arguments, not to mention one less tummy to fill. Roz sees a future filled with opportunities for her son and engages with the changes in her life like a pro surfer riding the breakers.

It’s not always easy to be philosophical though, most of the mothers I’ve spoken to have known for years their child will leave, and yet when they do actually go, it’s still a wrench. When an only child or the last one departs, those mums (and dads) know they had a role and now it’s gone forever.

Perhaps you too are experiencing another kind of change, but feel it came along too quickly or you could be adjusting to a sudden turn of events; one of life’s ‘curved balls’.


Accepting it is the end of an era is key when you consider your son or daughter’s childhood is now over. This knowledge can come with a sense of regret. How do we get past those nagging thoughts? I wish I had spent more time with them, listened more, and disciplined them more and so on.  It is not for me to provide absolution, but I believe there is no such thing as the perfect parent; we are always going to get something wrong, as ours did for us. Most parents try their best with the personal resources they have available to them at the time, emotional and financial.  As Alexander Pope wrote in 1711, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”


Give yourself time to grieve the loss before putting yourself under pressure to move on. Keep in mind that releasing emotions is an important component of any healing process. It may help to focus on any positives about the new situation, even if you have to dig deep to identify them.


When young adults leave home you can take credit for having raised your child in such a way they are now ready to go out into the world without your daily intervention. You have reached the goal of every parent – well done you!

We never stop being a parent and maybe the relationship will benefit from some distance.

If you have more time at your disposal, try focusing on how you would like to use it. Perhaps you can take up a new hobby or with the new found freedom in your schedule, you could at less feel less pressurised. It may help to recall the days when your children were very young and you longed for a few hours off!

Communication with College Kids

Agree with your offspring how you wish to communicate; email, text, phone or skype etc, and get ready to respect their new found privacy and space. Many parents are alarmed at how little they hear from their son or daughter and worry that something is wrong. Although it is important to check-in that everything is okay, don’t expect daily contact, they are starting a new life and will be busy.

Take heart, your son or daughter may turn out to be one of the ‘Boomerang’ generation; nowadays sixty percent of kids move back home eventually – best not to convert their den to a guest room just yet!

Do you have any experience or ideas that you could share? Please go ahead and comment.

Other blog posts about college leavers

Wordgeyser.com – Collegebound Kids Twitter @Wordgeyser

HuffingtonPost.com – Starting College: A Guide for Parents 2013 Twitter @ HuffPostParents

PsychologyToday.com – Letting Go of College Kids Twitter @PsychToday

For information and sharing on parenting matters, check out:

ExpatChild.com Twitter @ExpatChild

Mumsnet.com Twitter @mumsnettowers ‘By parents for parents’


The Global Nomad’s Guide to UniversityTransition’ by Tina L Quick