What to say to teens when exam stress strikes

  • June 5, 2017

The pressure on teens to do well in exams is absurd. Only one grade matters, says our columnist: an A for effort

Teenagers are emotional, aren’t they? They live in an unpredictable vortex of logic, painfully transitioning from child to adult in the dramatic manner of Doctor Who regenerating. This makes parenting tricky, because you never know who you are going to encounter in the kitchen. Frankly, I’ve more chance of finding all our missing socks than I have of working out what is going on in my 13- and 14-year-old daughters’ minds. This puts me in a state of high alert, constantly looking for signs that things aren’t right. I fear I might miss something beyond the usual melodrama of teenagerdom that may point to more serious problems.

So what are the signs that lead to the severe teen conditions we all fear: eating disorders, self-harm, depression, suicidal thoughts?

I’m particularly concerned about exam stress, which seems to be increasing in our culture. One night I found my 14-year-old on the sofa in tears as she revised. She’s a bright girl, so this was a surprise, but was it ordinary teen anxiety or something more? Had I missed crucial signs she wasn’t coping?


  • 24% of British parents say their own mental health is affected by their children’s exam stress

I turned to one of the UK’s leading psychoanalysts for adolescents, Ian Williamson, the author of a new book, We Need to Talk: A Straight-Talking Guide to Raising Resilient Teens. He has had more than 50,000 face-to-face consultations with teenagers, and advises focusing on their efforts rather than achievements. Be the parent who praises them for doing their best whether they get top marks or not. And never imply that bad grades mean their life is ruined, because that isn’t factually accurate.

“Adolescents have a common strategy, which is if they don’t think about something then it will go away,” he says. “But at the same time, they understand they have to do the revision — the collision of these two opposing thought processes creates panic for them.

“You have to bear in mind that every teen is at a different state of maturity. Be an engaged and practical parent. Take the phone away for an hour so they can revise, explain how you can help solve problems with them and create quality time for them to relax. And keep your approach gentle.”

There are some subtle signs your teen may be experiencing a deeper level of stress, including a gradual withdrawal from family life or increased listlessness. If they stop socialising with friends, remain in their rooms longer than normal or stay up later and later, these could be signs they are not coping and may need professional support.

“There is a semi-hysteria around exams from both pupils and teachers,” he concludes. “We focus too much on results under the myth that hours of revision will get A-grades. It doesn’t. We need a much more relaxed attitude. If kids do their best then they have been successful and that’s the thought they need to carry with them.”