How can Parents help their Children handle Exam Stress?

Dr. Manjula M
Additional Professor,
Department of Clinical Psychology,
National institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS),

Exam season of the year is a stressful period for both parents and children. While children feel responsible to get good results, parents feel responsible to make them perform well. Often, this sense of responsibility may manifest itself in their anxieties, resulting in pressure on the children to perform, expressing fears, comparing, expectations etc. This mars the confidence levels of children and makes them stressed.

Parents are sometimes over-ambitious and try to realise all their unfulfilled expectations and desires through children, due to which children undergo a lot of tension and conflict. They may feel overburdened with parental expectations or feel guilty that they will not be able to fulfil them. Parents need to first understand that each child is unique and every child has his or her own strengths and talents and also understand and accept the fact that people can make a living and lead a good life, with or without good marks. Academics are just one part of life and not life itself. As a parent, it is best if you can give more importance to your child becoming a sensible and compassionate individual in society.

Identify if your children are stressed
As a parent, it will be easy for you to notice any changes in them. Often children express their anxieties, frustrations, or their difficulties in the form of expressing that they have not adequately prepared. What if they do not get the seat/course they want, inability to concentrate, forgetting everything, not able to grasp the subjects etc. Also, sometimes some of them tend to oversleep or sleep very little, have an upset stomach just before exams or may express hopelessness and anxiety about the results, and involve in self harming behaviours.
Being available for the child and to monitor him/her becomes important to keep track of any changes in their behaviour. Reassuring the child that the focus is on learning rather than on marks will calm them to a great extent. It is important to keep your calm and not to induce fear in them.
How can parents help their children during exams, without making them overly anxious or marring their self-confidence?

A parent should act as a facilitator for the child during exams. As the child is already feeling anxious and stressed about their performance. What a parent could do is:

  • Check how much of the course has been completed
  • Explain concepts if they are confused about it/see how they can be helped
  • Help your child create a study timetable such that there is sufficient time to revise the subjects.
  • Assist the child in revising the study material
  • Encourage them to take some time out to relax
  • Provide adequate and nutritious food to keep them fit and healthy
  • Monitor your child's sleeping pattern and make sure they get adequate rest
  • Provide the much needed assurance and emotional support for your child to overcome their apprehensions
  • Give them tests at home if they are slow in writing and have difficulty organizing their answers, give tips on answering different kinds of questions

What are the things that parents should be flexible about?
Many children in high school do become responsible towards their studies during exams. So avoid trying to control them and give them space to study by themselves. Do not insist on studying at a particular time (early morning vs. late night) and allow them to study in their preferred time. What is important is making them feel responsible for their studies. So, excessive monitoring and guiding does not help them learn better. Tell them that they can approach you if they need help. Allow them to take break form studies, during which they may want to check a message on the phone or browse the internet for some time. However, it is better if they go for a walk or listen to music for some time. This may help your child feel refreshed.

How to help them take success and failure equally?
Firstly, check your own ideas of success and failure. If you have very rigid set of rules (e.g. if you believe that getting marks less than 90% is failure), your child will inadvertently learn the same idea and considers anything less than that as failure.
See that your day to day conversations do not indicate that you respect only success, show the attitude of taking both success and failure even-handedly and also that both are equally important. See what your conversations on a daily basis indicate, modify the content of talk if it is not facilitating healthy development.