With one week to the start of ex­ams . . . so what now?

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Exam Stress -

With a week to go to the start of the State ex­ams, what’s the ad­vice of ex­pe­ri­enced hands for rookie Leav­ing Cert par­ents? Keep calm as the clock ticks down. The worst part is the an­tic­i­pa­tion, it’s not so bad when the ex­ams ac­tu­ally start, says ac­tor and play­wright Rose Hen­der­son, a mother of four who has seen two through the Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate.

“The build-up is dread­ful. I ac­tu­ally turned off all news – I didn’t want them to know how many thou­sand stu­dents were start­ing the Leav­ing Cert to­mor­row . . . If they wanted to read any­thing in The Ir­ish Times they were wel­come, but I wasn’t leav­ing it out for them.

“I think it’s all too late at that point – they have done what they’ve done.” She en­cour­aged 10-minute breaks from study, for some­thing like a game of cards, ta­ble ten­nis or play­ing the piano, “just to shift the fo­cus of their brain”.

Stock the fridge Ev­ery­body seems unan­i­mous on this one. It’s def­i­nitely a time for com­fort food, which also needs to be as nu­tri­tious as pos­si­ble. “My tack was that ‘I am here to feed you’ – there was loads of home-made stuff,” says Hen­der­son.

Dearbhla Kelly, guid­ance coun­sel­lor and au­thor of Ca­reer Coach, stresses the im­por­tance of stu­dents stay­ing well hy­drated at all times. “You can im­prove your per­for­mance by 10 per cent, ac­cord­ing to the Bri­tish Psy­cho­log­i­cal So­ci­ety.”

Keep tuned in “The biggest sin­gle bit of ad­vice I give is to stay at­tuned to your young per­son’s needs and keep your rou­tine as nor­mal as pos­si­ble,” says Paul Gil­li­gan, chief ex­ec­u­tive of St Pa­trick’s Men­tal Health Ser­vices in Dublin and au­thor of Rais­ing Emo­tion­ally Healthy Chil­dren. “Be con­scious of the need for your child to have sup­port – but pro­vide that sup­port in the way that they seek it.” Don’t fuss Avoid the in­cli­na­tion to be “overly sup­port­ive”, he sug­gests. It might be too late now, but he doesn’t rec­om­mend tak­ing two weeks off if the teenager’s re­sponse is: “Why? You are al­ways work­ing and I am happy with that.”

Of course once the ex­ams have started it is im­por­tant to check in, “How did it go?” etc, but let the child re­spond in their own man­ner and take the con­ver­sa­tion from there.

It’s a “very stress­ful time for par­ents and the biggest stress is to be able to con­strain their stress and their love for their child, ex­press­ing that in a way that is con­struc­tive”, Gil­li­gan says.

“The re­silience of your own child will come through and they will seek the sup­port they need. If they are hav­ing an im­plo­sion of anx­i­ety, then you need to help them man­age that, but most kids won’t.”

Take a step back and be tol­er­ant It is their Leav­ing Cert and par­ents have to re­mem­ber that, says Betty McLaugh­lin, im­me­di­ate past pres­i­dent of the In­sti­tute of Guid­ance Coun­sel­lors. If they see their par­ents get­ting anx­ious it’s go­ing to make them more anx­ious. “They are de­pend­ing on you to calm the storm. They are very sen­si­tive and you have to be dou­bly sen­si­tive as a par­ent in or­der to sup­port them. There are go­ing to be ups and downs and they will be a lit­tle bit ratty and ag­i­tated. Be pre­pared for that – it is all part of the stress.”

Don’t stress about their stress “Stress is a good thing – it is a mo­ti­va­tor and it’s nor­mal,” says McLaugh­lin. “I would be con­sol­ing stu­dents to say it’s okay to be stressed, it’s nor­mal, and it’s okay if you are not stressed ei­ther. There is no right or wrong.”

En­cour­age pos­i­tive thoughts If a teenager is catas­trophis­ing go­ing into the ex­ams, “I am go­ing to fail, this is go­ing to be a dis­as­ter”, the mind gets hi­jacked by that strong emo­tion and fear, cut­ting off ac­cess to mem­ory and logic, says Kelly.

So it’s im­por­tant to help them re­duce their anx­i­ety, en­cour­ag­ing them to tell them­selves that they can do it, and to be­lieve that all their thoughts will flow when they open that pa­per.

If peo­ple can feel safe and se­cure, the brain is go­ing to work well, she points out. “We are wired like cave­men – we don’t know the dif­fer­ence be­tween an exam and a tiger; we go into that flight or freeze mode.”

Avoid post­mortems It’s re­ally im­por­tant to en­cour­age them not to ru­mi­nate but to move on for the next exam, says McLaugh­lin. She has seen stu­dents be­come im­mo­bilised when they start dis­sect­ing what went wrong, where and why, in a par­tic­u­lar pa­per.

“One of the great­est crosses a par­ent has to bear is the anx­i­ety go­ing into the exam and then the non-feed­back at the end of the exam,” says Gil­li­gan.

The stu­dent has usu­ally re­solved his or her anx­i­ety through do­ing the exam but “the child hasn’t the en­ergy or the psy­cho­log­i­cal ca­pac­ity to ex­plain to some­body how it went”, he ex­plains.

“So it might be some­thing like ‘grand’ or it might be some­thing like ‘ter­ri­ble’, and you have to suck it up and say that is the best I am go­ing to get here and also help the child to move on.”

He rec­om­mends two mes­sages to get across if a stu­dent is dwelling on a pa­per that’s be­hind them: one, it’s un­likely to be as bad as you think and two, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter at this stage, you have got to move on.

“En­cour­age your son or daugh­ter to park it but that can be a real chal­lenge for par­ents be­cause they them­selves get stuck into it: ‘What ex­actly was so ter­ri­ble about it?’; ‘Did you do two ques­tions or three ques­tions?’ etc. The key prin­ci­ple is not to make judg­ments be­cause we haven’t a clue.”

Pre­pare for post-trau­matic stress Dur­ing the al­most eight weeks from the end of the ex­ams to ex­pected results day of Au­gust 16th, there is a recog­nised process, which is sim­i­lar to a post-trau­matic re­ac­tion, says Gil­li­gan. It starts with de­nial that the results are yet to come be­cause it’s all re­joic­ing at the end of the ex­ams and let’s move on. Then there’s the de­pres­sion, the “I think I did aw­ful”, fol­lowed by anger at hav­ing to wait so long for the results.

“Par­ents need to help sup­port their chil­dren through that and make sure they don’t get stuck in those phases.” At the same time, par­ents need to con­trol their own anx­i­eties.

“They see their child re­spond­ing and they are hang­ing on to those re­sponses.” In real­ity noth­ing is chang­ing from week one to week seven “but your child is go­ing through a psy­cho­log­i­cal res­o­lu­tion and, by the time they get to the results, they are in a health­ier state to be able to deal with the out­come”.

Par­al­lel to this is help­ing them to re­solve the loss of sec­ondary school. Par­ents should, he sug­gests, take a con­struc­tive view of the “dreaded post-Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate hol­i­day” as the young­sters’ rit­ual of say­ing good­bye and mov­ing on.

Re­mem­ber it’s not the end of the world “Of course it’s im­por­tant,” ac­knowl­edges Gil­li­gan, “but there are so many dif­fer­ent roads a child can take to get what they want out of life. The Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate results do not de­ter­mine that.”

McLaugh­lin looks at her daugh­ters, now in their 20s, and won­ders why she ever wor­ried.

“There are op­tions for ev­ery­one. Why did any of us worry about those things – as long as they have their health? But it’s all rel­a­tive at the time. It’s some­thing as a par­ent you have to do through.”

Good luck.

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