Exam Stress

exam stressI read two articles last week about the exam stress suffered by those teenagers currently going through their GCSE’s or A Levels; the first said that parents should be very relaxed and understanding and try not to add to the pressure their teens are facing, and the next one said the exact opposite: you should push them because, after all, they’re capable aren’t they and it’s important.

I read these media reports about the exam stress that teenagers are experiencing, and I hear a lot about it from parents too. Are kids today more stressed than they used to be? Are there more factors which stress them out in today’s life than in the past? There are always two diametrically opposed views on this: from one side it’s all a load of nonsense, exams are easier today, standards have slipped, and back in the day kids were expected to get their noses to the grindstone and just get on with it, and if they didn’t they’d be caned, so what’s the problem today? We’re far too soft now and we’re producing a generation of babies who can’t take the heat.

The other side says that the pressures on young people are unprecedented with the advent of the internet and social media and stresses we couldn’t have imagined when we were kids: bullying can now follow a child into their own home via the internet, the pressure to be perfect and liked is enormous, mental health disorders like cutting and self-harm are soaring and our mental health services are stretched to breaking point.

I agree with a bit of one and a bit of the other and I’m never quite sure which picture is the ultimate reality, nor which attitude and approach in itself is the best one to adopt. So I do a bit of both.

I like to treat my kids as capable human beings, I think that’s a good thing to assume about all kids in the way we treat them. I have high expectations of their capabilities and resilience, I will not treat them as if they are ill and I try to stop myself doing that even when there genuinely is something that worries me. I will not treat any of my kids as if they are victims of a harmful system, I really don’t want them growing up feeling that disempowered.

On the other hand I recognise the extra pressures they face today, I’m just never sure whether they amount to a greater overall pressure, or just that the pressure takes different forms (they’re not going to end up in the workhouse for example, that pressure has gone). I don’t believe in the mythical golden rosy childhoods of the past but there are unique stresses today which we are not experienced in managing because they’re so new and we parents didn’t experience them ourselves. I have watched the education system change as my four kids have moved through it and I do think the league tables and all the testing have created extra pressures, especially in the early years (why haven’t we yet learned to look at how the Scandinavians do it?)  As society has changed, I see the unfair pressure particularly on girls to both get both straight A’s AND to spend the required amount of time and energy investment in being groomed enough to meet today’s minimum acceptable level of hotness. I also see that boys are increasingly expected to look hot, which is a recent development for this generation. I remember what it was like to suffer exam stress and I truly, deeply empathise.

So I deal with this area in the same way as I do every other: an overall relaxed and trusting approach, interspersed with the occasional pithy laser-sharp arrow of insightful observation when I think it’s necessary, to keep them on their toes. This generally takes the form of using tactics I would never normally use, to maximise the shock aspect, such as comparing siblings:

“You wouldn’t want to do worse than your brothers would you?? You’d let them think boys are better than girls..? Have you no PRIDE??”

Throwing in a word or a judgment I would never normally express is also useful:

“Of course, anyone who doesn’t actually use this short time in their life to just get down to revision so they’ll get the best results they’re capable of is ABSOLUTELY STUPID…”

And then I go back to being the supportive, empathetic and relaxed mother they know and love, until the next time. When you read one of these media reports which push one approach or the other as the only way to support your teenager facing exam stress, I don’t think there’s any need to choose between them; the ‘bit of both’ approach works just fine.

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