In a survey of 2,000 8-14-year-olds, carried out by the Children’s Commissioner last year, 66% (two thirds) said they felt most stressed about homework and exams.

It can seem to school children, at this time of year, as they complete mocks and begin exam season that all conversation at school (and perhaps at home) is around exams and revision.

This can begin to feel overwhelming, especially if our children are feeling some anxiety about their exams.  Some schools are still not completely back to normal exam routines and although written exams are back on with some amendments being made to the content – the current Year 11 & 13 will certainly still have been affected by the last 18 months of uncertainty and disruption to the norm.

The stress part of exams can build up for a variety of reasons such as:

  • Fear of a ‘bad’ outcome and the pressure that their results might impact their next steps; college, university, apprenticeships, jobs etc.
  • Tiredness due to revising late into the night and struggling to sleep as their brain has not had enough downtime.
  • Having to balance multiple subjects with different content and expectations.
  • Hearing their friends talk about how much they’ve been doing, how late they stayed up and feel like they are not doing enough.
  • Pressure of living up to siblings results and expectations of others (often perceived).

When we are stressed or anxious more cortisol and adrenalin is produced which, in small amounts can be helpful, but an overload or constant, relentless flow is not good for our well-being or getting the best out of our brains.

  • When we have challenge stress (a little bit of cortisol) this helps us to be focused and alert and ready to take on the challenge. When this challenge stress ends, further hormones are released to let our body and brain know that we can return to “normal”.
  • When the stress becomes extended however, with the belief that there is no end in sight or perhaps predicting dire outcomes, then we produce more and more of these stress hormones.
  • As we’re not using them to complete a challenge, rather using them for negative rumination or forecasting, then this stress accumulates in our ‘stress bucket’ and starts to have a negative effect on the way we view and approach everyday tasks.
  • Suddenly our teens are finding it difficult to cope as they once did with everyday (often minor challenges), such as an annoying sibling, for example.
  • When our stress bucket is full, we spend more time in the primitive ‘survival’ part of our brain which encourages us to be more stressed, anxious or negative.

Most of the exam stress is, of course, going to be in the run up to the exams.  There is a lot of unknown. There is often an expectation that revision should be easy – “just revise”.

However revision is a skill and is something they need to learn to do and practice – and what works for one person might not necessarily look the same for another. In addition…

  • They may find themselves obsessively focusing on the revision, the how and the when, how much is enough, how will they know?
  • It can quickly become overwhelming and can spiral into a feeling of being impossible and completely out of their control.
  • Feeling out of control can often lead to an inability to take any action as the brain feels too overwhelmed so encourages you to ‘freeze’ – stick your head in the sand and hope it all goes away.

If you notice your child feeling this way, one of the first things you can do to get them back on the right track is to tell them to take a break. That’s right, encourage your children to do something other than study.

In that stressed, overwhelmed moment, it is highly unlikely that they are going to achieve anything productive, so encouraging them to take a break and do something they enjoy (getting out for a walk, spending time with friends, even having a nap) will give them some head space to relax and change their stressed state of mind in that moment.  Once they have ‘reset’ this can be a good opportunity to support them in identifying a plan that may work better for them.

Revision requires mental stamina and it can be likened to running or weight training. Just as we can build up physical stamina, we can also build up our mental stamina.  Previous experience (training/practice) has an impact on our ability to run 5k, lift 10 kg or to study for hours at a time.

If we are a beginner runner, we are advised to follow a programme and slowly build up to that 5k, the same with weightlifting, we slowly increase the weights.  It is the same with brain stamina, we can build this, but if this is our first time of having regular study time, we might want to start with shorter intervals and factor in more breaks.

According to The Student Room, students revise 15 to 20 hours per week for their exams, which might sound a lot until you break it down. You’ve probably worked it out for yourself, but the recommended time equates to three to five hours of revision per day with weekends off! (Source: Birmingham University)

One of the most important keys to supporting your teens through exam stress is giving them the opportunity to talk to you.

  • What might seem like a small factor to you, can seem like the end of the world to them.
  • It can feel like a time of their life when they are expected to transition from children to adults and yet, it can feel like, much of life is being done to them with little opportunity for them to choose.
  • We can, of course, share our experience and guide them – but when we listen, let them have their voice and support them in coming up with a plan that works for them they are going to feel more empowered and motivated to follow it through and reduce stress.

Practical Steps To Reduce Exam Stress:

  1. Talk you your teen about what works for them – what has worked well in the past? What didn’t work? What do they want to do differently this time?
  2. Consider mental stamina – how long is too long? Most teens are used to being in hour long lessons, but these lessons are often broken up into smaller segments, so an hour studying one subject may feel too long. Perhaps begin with 30-minute blocks, with a 5 or 10 minute break. This can then be increased to 45 minutes or an hour block with the breaks also increasing. Let them know that they will begin to recognise what works for them, if they are regularly feeling tired and feeling like they are reading the same sentence over and over again, then they may need to try small study blocks with short breaks.
  3. Consider time of day – It can also to be helpful to talk about the best time of day to study.  We’ve shared in previous blogs that teenager’s natural sleep and wake routines can differ and this in turn can affect the best time to study. Encourage your teen to notice when they find it easier to study – for some (although this might be very few teens), it might be earlier in the day, for others (more likely) it might be later into the evening.
  4. Discuss rewards and motivation – these can be in the moment rewards or longer-term rewards. Their short-term goal might be to reward themselves with a hot chocolate, walking to the shop for a snack, watching a bit of their favourite programme after a 90 minute block of studying. Or perhaps meeting friends for lunch after a morning of revision. They might have a weekly goal that includes having the weekend off.
  5. Take regular breaks – include getting outside, doing exercise, a call with a friend (all of these increase serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter and improve our ability to study).
  6. Prioritise sleep – we know that sleep is one of the primary ways that we empty our stress bucket –
  7. Eat well – fuelling the body with healthy snacks and avoiding too much sugar. Although it can feel good in the moment, sugar produces a reaction that gives us a hit of dopamine, but is then followed by an energy crash leaving them feeling tired.
  8. Have a plan – creating a list that enables them to tick off or highlight what they’ve achieved will make them feel good (get a healthy hit of dopamine). When we achieve one of our small goals/steps we feel successful and this sets us up to attack the next one.
  9. Create balance within the plan – support revision goals with other ‘non work’ related activities to focus on so that they are not only focussed on the exams. Having fun, seeing friends, relaxing and getting enough sleep will reduce stress and actually support their studying.
  10. Learn he value of NO – we live in a society where there can be pressure and expectation to do everything, there’s even a word for it now, “FOMO” (fear of missing out). The challenge is that we all have the same 24 hours in our day and when we say “Yes” to something we are always saying “No” to something else. Empowering our teens to be able to say No and to recognise the impact of that no, can support them in creating balance in their lives.

For further help and tips visit The Youth Fairy Parent Pad for more blogs around sleep, anxiety and exams.

The Youth Fairy – Teens and Sleep

Additional support can also be found at:

Childline- Exam stress and pressure

NHS – Coping with exam stress