Parenthood and coping with exam stress

There appears to be a general increase in stress levels amongst learners and their parents as the year moves towards closure. Parents and children alike are generally exhausted by the year's activities, but they still have to push through various end of the year challenges, including final exams.Some particular stressors include the preparation around matric farewell events, final exam preparation, the selection of suitable tertiary qualifications (concerns around choosing the correct field of study) as well as awaiting feedback regarding applications. Anxiety and depression may also increase when parents hold on to rigid, demanding beliefs about how their children should perform and the study fields that their children should pursue. The belief that it would be a catastrophe if things do not work out how they are envisaged may exacerbate performance anxiety in their children. This may in return, set the groundwork for symptoms including panic attacks and freeze responses while writing exams, as well as possible procrastination which is typically connected with a fear of failure. In addition, funding of further studies could also add to increased stress amongst parents. Some learners opt for a gap year before studying in order to generate funds and to allow additional time to consider various career and study options. The uncertainty around the current state of affairs surrounding tertiary institutions is a concern for parents and matriculants. The need for certainty and not having it is a typical experience underlying emotional distress.

Tips for parents of matriculants:

1. Remain calmly supportive of your child during the exam period. Parents who remain relaxed and confident in their children provide a safe environment where children can focus on the work of studying, rather than on worrying about their parents.

2. Focus on positive feedback rather than negative feedback to motivate. E.g. instead of saying how terrible it would be if your child does not achieve the desired outcome, focus on possibility thinking based on your child's strengths and track record.

3. Encourage a balanced lifestyle during exams. A regular nutritious diet, movement and exercise as well as sufficient sleep (7 - 8 hours per night) assist to regulate blood sugar levels and promote focus and concentration which are necessary ingredients for studying and exam-writing.

4. Where possible, relieve your child from time-consuming chores during the exam season. Some children may feel overwhelmed by their to-do list. For some the struggle to prioritise and execute tasks could serve to increase anxiety levels that are normally counterproductive.

5. Consider consuming "brain foods" that support the nervous system. These include wholegrains, tomatoes, blueberries, oily fish, pumpkin seeds, broccoli, chicken, eggs and nuts.

6. Acknowledge that complete certainty of how our lives will unfold can never be guaranteed. This is a normal reality of life and being human. Mentally demanding that life should turn out a particular way as well as pre-empting or catastrophising undesirable outcomes are unhelpful and stressful. We can only control our responses within the here and now, and as such, we can be actively involved in creating the most optimal possibilities.

Written by Dr Ingrid Artus