Exam season is upon us here in the UK. Thousands and thousands of students of Year 11 and Year 13 (A levels) will put their last couple of years of hard work to the test. Meanwhile their parents will be on tenterhooks throughout the next month at least.
‘I don’t know who’s more nervous, her or me?’
It’s easy to find yourself worried, nervous and distressed at the thought of your children sitting their ‘big’ exams. For one, it reminds us of our very own stressful exam experiences. Whether you were an A-track student or just barely got by, exams, especially the ‘big’ exams always feel like the be all and end all of life as we know it. Yet, in our wisdom and often with hindsight we know that is completely untrue.
Regardless of how you performed at your exams, you too have managed to carve out a life rich with experiences. Even if not everything went you way or how you had planned it, everything somehow has turned out well. It really is this reflection that we need to keep in mind as we guide and support our younger generation through one of the most stressful experiences of their early lives.
1. Trust in your teen and in their journey
From the moment they are born, to where they are now, you have both consciously and inadvertently raised the young person or persons in your household. From their first steps to their first dates, joys and tears, chances are you’ve been there for most if not all of it.
Their major exams are no different. They occur as a by-product of the life journey they are on. Yes, it feels that with each step and every progressive milestone your teen is getting ready to fly the nest (and honestly, that’s what we are really worried about). But you’ve raised them well, to the very best of your ability.
Now is the time, to sit back, watch and support your teen as they journey through another experience. Trust that they are the best person that they can be. Trust that this journey is meant to be exactly as it is unfolding. Most of all, believe that all that hard work you’ve invested in to your young person, is exactly what has been right for them.
2. Look forward, be positive and hopeful
As they come out of their exams and after spending days and nights locked in revision, it is inevitable that there may be times when the exam paper was harder than they expected. Or worse they come out feeling that they could not do a single thing. The most important thing you can do at this point is to look forward, be positive and remain hopeful.
Once they are out of the exam hall, there is nothing left to be done about the paper just passed. The very best thing you can do, is to help then remember that no matter what, they have done their very best. Hold your tongue about the partying and the last minute revision, and the friends hanging out at all hours…now is not the time.
If they are very, very distressed, help them set a time limit on which to mull or rant – 20 mins (maybe?). After those 20 minutes are up, they have to have a shower, eat a snack or a treat and then look forward and focus on the next paper. No more discussing or talking about the paper past.
3. Let them know that you are there
Exam season is always a time when everything feels a little more intense and more fraught. It feels as if we each are individuals walking into battle alone. Whether it’s a hug, a smile, a shoulder squeeze, a quickly dashed off post-it note, let your teen know that no matter what, you’re there for them. Rooting for them.
Let them know that you’re there and that you’re thinking of them. Remind them that they are so much more than the outcome of the exam. Most important of all, tell them, that no matter how they perform life can and will continue to help them grow and offer them life experiences that they will enjoy and cherish.
4. Light questions only – do not analyse exam questions and answers
If you feel you have to ask or if your teen is particularly withdrawn, a simple ‘How was it?’ is enough. And if they don’t feel like talking, then move on to something else.
Make sure that you do not ask the details of the exam questions (ooh, i know it’s a hard one) nor analyse what the questions were or what the answers should have been. Remind yourself that they have left the exam hall, any further discussion on what could have been would be pointless.
It is inevitable that your teen may feel deflated or that they need to decompress, especially after the final paper of a particularly challenging subject. They may have worked very very hard to maintain content and knowledge in their memory. And once the exam is passed, it may be that they need to ‘let it go’.
5. Ply them with food, remind them to rest, have breaks, sleep early
So, if you can’t talk about the exam, nor ask about the question. if you can’t make any comments or share any thoughts, what exactly can you do? Your most important job as a parent, is to ply them with good food, solid snacks and occasional treats. Remind them to rest and have breaks. Make sure that they have a decent night’s sleep before the exam. If you are their taxi-driver, make sure they are there for the exam in good time.
Beyond that, read number 1 again: Trust in your teen and in their journey
6. Plan a treat or special activity after exams
A great way to motivate your teen is to help them decide or even treat them to an experience or occasion that they would enjoy, if they have not already organised their own. Tickets to watch a favourite movie or to a concert of a favourite artist; some money towards a festival experience that they have been planning.
If you have younger children, perhaps they would enjoy putting together a basket of post-exam goodies and treats for your exam-sitting teen, or plan a short get-away to a favourite location. Whatever you (and your family) decide,remember no more talk of exams or exam papers and questions after the actual exam itself.
If your teen voluntarily discusses their exam experience, listen and affirm positively. Remind them that no matter what, they have already done their very best. The outcome is no longer within their control. If they need reassurance, remind them that there are many pathways to their desired outcome. A gap year, an alternative course, reapplying to University with grades in hand next year – all are very real possibilities.
Most importantly, remember that exams are just a stepping stone on the journey through education. Education can take many forms and success in exams is just one route up the mountain. Good luck to you and your teen!