Exam time: 5 ways to de-stress your teen (and you)
As we come up to exams, we all want our teens to breeze through this difficult period as easily as possible. But schools – and some parents - often put unbearable pressure on our children to do well in exams, creating extra stress (rather than support), anxiety about the future and self-doubt.
Although this will be a difficult time, and one we all want to get through as quickly as possible, there are some things you can do to help you and your teen survive exam stress.
One – be the calm you want to see
When you are about to fly away to a lovely holiday destination, you are first treated to a video that faces the possibility you don’t want to think about: in that video, we are told that when the cabin loses oxygen, masks drop from the ceiling; parents are advised to place their own mask on before attending to their children. Basically, if you expire, you are no good to your child.
A similar principle applies here. Before you start trying to calm your teen, learn to de-stress yourself. Stress and anxiety can be infectious, especially in families. This is thanks to our mirror neurons that mirror others' behaviour: useful for empathy but also for mass panic.
But if we model calm, our teen’s mirror neurons may mirror a more relaxed way of being. We recommend practising mindfulness daily, looking after yourself, taking a walk – or heading to a spa - if things get too stressful at home. Therefore, if anything kicks off, you will be able to respond gently and with wisdom that will hopefully calm your teen.
Two – give your teen tools to cope
Talk to your teen about preparing emotionally for their exams.
A growing body of evidence suggests that mindfulness – purposeful, non-judgemental awareness – helps young people cultivate empathy as well as concentration skills and impulse control. Many teens are suspicious of parental advice and like to have evidence that this will help them. Share some research with them, such as studies that show mindfulness helps with exams and meditation can improve concentration.
I have given both my teens a subscription to headspace.com, an app with lots of short mindfulness meditations that are simple, non-preachy and specific. There are meditations for sleep, stress and anxiety.
Three - understand your teen
One of the problems we have with teens is we expect them to behave like adults. Yet studies in neuroscience now know they are not being wilfully difficult; the ‘adult’ part of their brains is still developing. During adolescence (ages 14-26), the pre-frontal cortex – the area of the brain associated with self-regulation, decision making, memory and insight – is not fully formed.
If you want to know what you’re dealing with, but also help your teen understand their own behaviour, watch this TED talk by cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.To transform self-sabotaging behaviour into a growth mindset, researchers also recommend being non-judgemental, creating an environment where it is okay to make mistakes, to give useful feedback rather than negative criticism, and to encourage them to research the mindset of someone they admire.
It’s important to know that your patterns are not set: you are never too old or young to learn new tricks.
Four – create a calm space at home
They may be getting pressure at school, so turn your home into a sanctuary where they can revise and reboot for the next day. Have reed diffusers with calming oils, place plants in your teen’s bedroom (indoor plants are so hip, they probably have them already) - studies have shown that indoor plants improve concentration and productivity, reduce stress levels and improve your mood.
Diplomatically reach an agreement about social media during revision times - this is best done when super-calm and without judgement. Hear your teen's point of view, discuss the pros and cons together, and aim for compromise rather that total veto – after all phones can be useful for revision and have meditation apps.
Five – good rewards
Teenage brains are wired to seek rewards, regardless of consequences or risks. With their eye on pleasure and the high discharge of dopamine that comes with it, their actions appear risky and self-defeating. It's not entirely their fault - remember that their adult pre-frontal cortex is still growing.
Time to teach them about good rewards. Treat your teen to a spa day or treatment if they manage to get through the exam they are most dreading; create delicious, healthy brain-food rather than letting them comfort-eat junk.
Finally: make sure you have something distracting planned for Summer, so you don’t have to gnaw at your fingernails worrying about the dreaded results-day envelope. You have all done the best you can and survived the exam period: that alone deserves a big pat on the back, or at the very least a glass of bubbly in the nearest hot-tub.