Parents: How to Support Your Student Through Exam Stress
The Pressure of Preparation
This time of year can be extremely stressful for many high school and college students. They are facing final exams and AP tests; they might also be studying for the SAT, ACT, or other standardized test. For many students, these next few weeks feel like the hardest of the entire academic year.
Exam stress can manifest in many ways, including:
Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and difficulty sleeping.
Negative thoughts such as “I’m going to fail”, “I’ll never get into college/get a good job if I don’t do well”, and “My parents will be disappointed in me.”
Anxious or depressed mood including agitation, difficulty focusing, and low motivation.
Unhealthy coping behaviors such as oversleeping, over- or under-eating, substance use, or self-injury.
What's even more alarming, is that students are not confident in their coping skills and are unable to avoid the effects of exam stress.
As a clinical psychologist who works with teens and young adults AND as a mom to a college freshman and high school junior, I’ve seen how important parenting can be to students’ success and well-being during these high-stress academic times. In this blog, we’re going to talk about ways parents can support students while they are preparing for and taking important exams.
Be a cheerleader, not a coach. Your kids have teachers/professors; they have study guides; they have practice materials. They don’t need (or usually want) you to “help them study”. They need you to cheer them on from the sidelines. Cheering on can include finding ways to support them (see point #2 below) and making sure that our words and actions support their overall wellbeing.
Ask them what they need from you. They know what helps them the most to stay motivated, positive, and on track. My college freshman, during the weeks leading up to and during AP tests in high school, wanted snacks and coffee. The best way I could support her was to keep the pantry stocked with M&Ms, quietly put a bowl of cut up fresh fruit next to her while she was studying, or run out to buy her a coffee or boba tea on the weekends. My current high school junior, in the thick of AP and SAT prep, needs frequent hugs and a morning positive affirmation text. Some students want their parents to help them set a study schedule or quiz them on key terms; others would find that intrusive and overbearing. By asking our students what they need most, we can make sure to be the support they need.
Lower demands & help set reasonable limits on commitments. When school demands go up, our capacity for focusing effectively on other obligations goes down. While some daily or weekly obligations cannot be minimized, others may have some flex. If you can reduce expectations regarding chores or optional activities at home, you can indirectly help your student experience less overall stress. You can also help your student make good choices regarding obligations that aren’t on a set schedule. Maybe this isn’t the week to go to the optional extra sports training or schedule the dental checkup. My high school junior was reviewing her weekly schedule with me recently and mentioned three (3!!!) virtual college information sessions she’d signed up for that week while lamenting her overall stress level. Knowing none of these are urgent, I gently suggested she reschedule these virtual sessions for after exams when she has less on her plate. It honestly hadn’t occurred to her that these could wait. She was relieved to get the extra time and the parental OK to put off a few things. What can you help your student take off their plate to reduce overall stress?
Messaging matters. Look, I’m not here to tell you that exams don’t matter at all. Right or wrong, that’s a naïve stance in the current academic and job climate. BUT I am here to tell you they don’t matter more than your student’s mental or physical health. Exam scores are not the only thing that will get them the college or job or future that they want. Our students are much, much more than their exam performance, and it is important that we message that clearly as parents. Avoid talking about exams, studying, performance, or consequences. They know all that. Instead, focus on their effort and their wellbeing. Try saying things such as “How are you feeling today?”, “You’ve been working so hard”, “What a stressful time! What can I do to support you?” Knowing that their parents love them regardless of their exam scores often lowers the stress pressure significantly.
For many teens and young adults, exam stress shows up as anxiety, agitation, overstudying, irritability, and a lot of self-focused pressure. They hyper-focus on schoolwork and can study for hours on end. What these students need from us parents is the tips outlined above on support, positive messaging, and help setting limits.
When Exam Stress Leads to Withdrawal and Procrastination
But for some, exam stress shows up as withdrawal, low motivation, and avoidance of studying. They oversleep, don’t study, and don’t put much if any time into preparation. It is very frustrating to parents, because it can seem as if our students simply don’t care. Usually, however, it is exactly the reverse – they care so much that it is overwhelming. The prospect of breaking down the seemingly insurmountable task of being ready for an AP test or final exam is so daunting that they do nothing. The fear of failure is literally paralyzing. These students need some different parenting strategies to get through exam stress:
Messaging matters even more. When kids withdraw and don’t perform academically, our natural parenting instinct is to keep telling them how important grades and performance is. If we just explain to them how much they should care, they’ll care more, right?!? But in fact the opposite is usually true. The more we amplify the significance of exams and the negative consequences of failure, the more we paralyze them with fear. In particular, these students need to hear that you will love them regardless of their performance and that exams are not the only predictor of their life success.
Support them in structuring their time. When a task seems insurmountable, it can be hard to take even the first step. You know the old adage: “What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” For a lot of reasons, the teen brain can have a hard time breaking down a huge task (study for the AP test) into manageable steps. But our parent brains can support them in structuring their time & studying, and by doing so we may help motivate them to take those first important steps. The best study goals are SMART:
Specific = I’m going to spend 30 minutes studying the multiple choice problems for AP Language;
Measurable = I’m going to do 1 practice page of multiple choice problems in my study book;
Attainable = I have the book; I know that 1 page shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes; I know which section to turn to;
Relevant = That is clearly supportive of studying for the AP Language test;
Time-based = I will spend 30 minutes doing this on Thursday afternoon after classes and before dinner.
SMART goals are markedly different from how we often set goals. It is easy to say “I’m going to study hard for AP Language this week” and mean it; but when push comes to shove often teens & young adults don’t know what that actually means. Helping them set SMART goals breaks these overwhelming tasks down into manageable pieces.
Exams and grades are important; but our kids’ mental and physical health is more important. We can’t eliminate the pressure of this time for our students, but we can support them to learn how to manage exam stress effectively and get through a stressful time constructively.
If you are a teen or young adult dealing with exam stress and test anxiety, check out our collaboration with Fiveable, where we cover common causes and coping strategies.
Amy Mezulis, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from Harvard University and her MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Mezulis provides services to older children, adolescents and adults utilizing an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral approach that includes mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. Dr. Mezulis has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicidality and self-injury, trauma, substance use, and adolescent development. She is currently a professor in the PhD program in Clinical Psychology at Seattle Pacific University.
If you or a member of your family needs help right away, please call 911 or visit your local emergency room. You can also call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).