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28 November, 2017

How parents can support students at exam time

It is that time of year again where the state exams are looming and a large proportion of the teenage population are beginning to become somewhat tetchy. This is the situation in many households around the country and many families are struggling to know what to do in order to help the stressed student.

In other households the atmosphere may be somewhat different where parents are pulling their hair out trying to motivate the disinterested student to do something even if it is last minute because they know just how important these exams are. 

Whether you live with a highly motivated student or an unmotivated student the stress at home is likely to be high nonetheless. So what can you do?

If you are the parent of a highly motivated student

If your teenager is a highly motivated student, the task may be to try and instil some sense of balance and perspective in their life. These young people are usually highly ambitious and can put themselves under tremendous stress to perform in state exams. This may lead to long hours cooked in the books and little time for family interaction or social respite. This is not always a good thing. 

Balance & Equilibrium

Good mental health requires a good sense of balance and equilibrium. However it is very difficult to force someone to relax. Often if you compel the student to spend time away from studying this only serves to increase the anxiety level as they feel they should be studying and does little to help. In this case it is important to just be available for the young person and offer prompts to take breaks and encourage the student to rest, sleep, eat and mind themselves. Regular tea breaks, treats or fun times are very useful. Try and explain the risks of over studying and the chances of exhaustion impeding their academic performance, but always acknowledge the stress and perceived importance of the exams to the student. Repeated statements that the Leaving Cert or Junior Cert are 'not the end of the world' hold little value, because at this moment in time, to that particular student, it is!

If you are the parent of an unmotivated student

In the case where you are the parent of an unmotivated student then that presents a different challenge. Despite the many myths, it is almost impossible to force someone to study or learn. Many parents send their teenagers to their room to study for long periods of time but one must acknowledge that the act of learning is something that requires the active participation of the young person and this is hard to achieve. The best a parent can do is to encourage and prompt towards the benefits of putting the work in, even at this late stage, and avoid overzealous bargaining, threats or nagging. Often these approaches can have the opposite effect. 

Fear of Failure

Enquire whether the resistance is due to fear as many young people experience a fear of failure and this is often heightened when it is subsequent to considerable effort.

Fear of failure, to a young person failure may not be literally failing the exam but may be falling short of expectations. These expectations may be the expectations of family, friends, siblings or themselves. This fear of falling short can cause a rise in anxiety levels to the conscientious or motivated student or a rise in the inactivity or resistance of the unmotivated student. It is important to address this issue with your teenager as these expectations may not be openly expressed. 

Clarify that you only want them to do their best and try not to compare them to other siblings or peers. Address the issue on the basis of their happiness and the reason for your perceived nagging is that you care about them and their future and want what’s best for them.

Manage Expectations

Young people need to manage their expectations of themselves and keep them realistic. This can be helped by parents who emphasise their effort as opposed to the outcome. Reward the endeavour without concentrating on the results.

You can be guaranteed that young people who are doing exams are struggling at the moment despite some of them appearing not to. As a parent or sibling it is important to acknowledge this difficulty and support them as best you can. 

Dr Colman Noctor

Colman Noctor is a Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytical Psychotherapist. He has worked across a range of Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services both in Ireland and abroad and he has a wealth of national and international clinical experience.

Having completing a Post Graduate Higher Diploma in Child and Adolescent Mental Health in Dublin City University Colman completed a Graduate Diploma in Psychoanalytic Studies in Dublin Business School and a Master of Science in Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in Trinity College Dublin. Colman is presently pursuing his Doctorate in Psychotherapy in Dublin City University.

Colman has worked in Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin and the Lucena Child Mental Health Services. Currently Colman works in St Patricks Mental Health Service and he is a part time Associate Professor in Trinity College Dublin. He also has a small private practice in the Personal Counselling and Psychotherapy Centre in Naas.

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