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How to support teenagers through exam time

Clinical psychologist Amy Wilson-Hughes shares some advice for parents and whānau to help their teens deal with the stress of exams.

I spend my days working with teenagers, and I know that term four can be rough. Heck, they’re teenagers – every day is rough. But exams add unique pressures all of their own, and what I’ve noticed is that parents have a tendency to add to this pressure rather than scaffold their teenagers through it. Results rest entirely on the teenagers’ shoulders, but parents can feel entitled to anger or disappointment should their young person fall short in their eyes. I can understand how this dynamic develops, but I’ve noticed that when it comes to exams, a little help can go a long way.

A lot of parents think that “helping with study” means having the knowledge to teach the subjects that their offspring are trying to learn. This may be true of helping with homework in primary school, but you don’t need to be able to ace an NCEA exam in order to support your teen in reaching their potential. Here are a few ways that all parents can support their kids, no matter what level of exams they’re facing.

Get a sense of what exams actually mean to your child

Not all attitudes towards exams are created equal. Exams can mean anything from “nothing, I’ve already passed with internals so I don’t care” to “if I don’t get excellence in every single one, my self-esteem may shatter into a thousand tiny pieces”. Some young people may need certain grades in exams to get into accelerate classes or certain subjects the next year, or to get accepted into specific university courses. The best way to help your child will be to get a sense of their expectations of themselves, and to start from there.

Help with scheduling and time management

The brain structures needed for time management, impulse control, and forward planning don’t finish growing until our early twenties, so no matter how mature your child seems they physically cannot be completely adult-like in these ways. Sitting down with your teen, taking a look at their exam timetable, rating the exams in order of difficulty and importance and using these to allocate study days according to need is something best supported by adults. Young people tend to study for exams in chronological order, which can lead to unproductive levels of stress when a difficult exam is nestled right behind a less important one. Helping your young person see the exam period as a whole rather than a series of individual events is a simple way to support your teen without any knowledge of the subjects themselves.

Photo: Getty Images

Make sure your child knows how to study

This may sound like a strange one, but it’s important. Different kids learn in different ways, and the same applies to studying. Reading over old notes or textbooks will do little if it doesn’t stick. Talk to your child about what works best – that may be reading notes or chapters aloud to themselves, re-writing or highlighting important notes, testing themselves using past exam papers, being tested by parents using flash cards they’ve made themselves, or creating mnemonics or poems to aid memory. Simply encouraging them to “study” or “revise” may lead to your child attempting a method of learning that actually helps very little come exam day.

Keep the motor running

Just as walking uses more energy than sitting, studying uses more energy than watching television. Teenagers are often left to their own devices during study leave and exam time, and may not be able to make the best choices about keeping their brains nourished and functional. If you’re not at home during the day, consider what easy-to-grab foods and snacks are available and do what you can to increase the quality and quantity of what’s there. Whenever you are at home with your studying teen, a snack delivery service is one of the most helpful things you can provide. This also applies to assisting your child to get sufficient sleep – our brain does a lot of work making memories stick overnight, so turning off the WiFi or doing a device collection when you head to bed may be something you can do to help.

A spoonful of teaching helps the learning go down

The very best way of consolidating learning is by teaching what you’ve learned. The reason this works is that it forces us to truly understand and internalise the concepts we’ve memorised, rather than just how to execute them. Understanding what a parabola is is every bit as important as remembering how to calculate one, but something that often gets overlooked in the rush to jam equations into teenage brains. If you can, make yourself available for a little while each evening to be “taught” whatever your teen spent the day learning. This way you’re both able to keep track of whether they’re working as hard as they’d planned to be, and help them cement whatever they’ve learned.

Be kind

This last one is the most important of all. The idea of helping your teen through exams is to relieve some of the pressure they’re under, not to increase your stake in it. Exams don’t measure how intelligent, caring, generous, funny, or generally wonderful your child is. You can go to university when you’re older no matter how bad your high school grades were. As an adult, your NCEA marks aren’t tattooed on your forehead – ask yourself how many people around you know (or care!) if you passed School C science with an A or a B. Also remember that none of us are at our best when we’re stressed out or under pressure – try to have a little extra grace for crankiness or rolled eyes throughout exam season.

Good luck for exams this year, parents – I’m sure you’ll do your best.

Amy Wilson Hughes is a clinical psychologist who trained at Victoria University and now lives in Auckland with her wife and cat. She is passionate about supporting young people and their families to live their best lives – and also about cats, the internet and fried carbohydrates.

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