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6 ways to help your teenager when exam stress strikes

A teenage girl sits at a desk with books, holding her forehead.
A little bit of stress might help your teenager to study better, but too much stress can be detrimental to their health and their performance.

Exam stress can affect any student. Whether they’re a high achiever at the top of their class, someone who coasts through without worrying too much about their grades, or a student struggling with a particular class or topic, when exams and assignments roll around, all types of students can experience stress.

As a parent or carer, seeing your child stressed might be upsetting. You might find it hard to understand their worries or be worried yourself if you notice their behaviour changes. Or, you might not have noticed they’re stressed until they, a teacher or a peer says something to you.

We spoke with Annie Wylie from ReachOut, Australia’s leading online mental health organisation for young people and their parents, about what you can do when your teen is feeling the crunch at exam time.

What is stress?

Before you can help, it’s important to understand what stress is.

Stress is a normal bodily response to challenging situations. When we find ourselves in difficult, dangerous or unexpected situations, our body reacts in ways that are meant to protect us from harm. Hormones like adrenalin are released that raise our heart rate and breathing rate, our muscles tense and our focus sharpens.

When it comes to stress about study and exams, a little bit of stress can actually be beneficial.

“Up to a certain level, stress can be kind of good,” Annie explains. “It increases your productivity, it makes you want to achieve goals and it gives you adrenalin and energy to make things happen. But then stress reaches a point and that stops happening, you plateau, and then after the plateau, these effects start decreasing.”

Situations that people find stressful can vary a lot: some people find pressure to perform well at work or study stressful, some people find social situations stressful, and some people find deciding what to eat for dinner stressful. Just like everyone is unique, so are the situations that make us feel stressed. It’s never silly or wrong to be stressed about something, but it is important to relieve stress if it is ongoing or affecting someone’s health or happiness.  

How do I tell if my teenager is stressed?

Some teens might straight out tell you when they’re stressed, while others might keep things to themselves or not have the language or confidence to share how they’re feeling.

Annie encourages parents to look for changes in their teenager’s behaviour that might indicate they are stressed.

“You might notice things like them not sleeping properly,” she says,” or they’re getting to bed a lot later than usual or getting up earlier than usual. If they’re feeling generally fatigued and saying they’re tired all the time, that might be a sign of stress.”

Annie also notes other changes in routine, like eating more or less than usual, not spending time with their friends or talking more or less than normal, could be signs that your teenager is feeling stressed.

“A really clear sign is that they don’t enjoy the things that they used to,” adds Annie. “Maybe they were really into drawing before and you’ve noticed that they’ve just totally stopped doing that. That can be a really clear sign that the teenager’s stressed out.”

If you think your teen is stressed, it’s important to do something about it. The action required will vary depending on each child and situation. Follow these six steps to help your teen manage their stress.

A teenage boy rests his head on his open study book.

1. Start a conversation

While your teen might not typically be talkative, having regular conversations about how they’re feeling and coping with the different aspects of their life is important.

“Everything doesn’t need to be super serious,” says Annie. “It’s just about having an open dialogue.”

Ask them about the signs you’ve seen that they might be stressed, and if they know what’s triggering their stress. If they can identify what’s making them stressed, ask them to tell you about it, and show that you’re really listening by not interrupting them and asking them further questions about what they’ve said. Even if the two of you can’t solve the problem together, just being able to share their thoughts might help your teen move forward with less stress.

2. Make sure they take downtime

If there’s a looming deadline that’s stressing your child out, they might be tempted to fixate only on working towards it without taking many breaks. But having some time off to relax is beneficial for their stress levels, and might even make them more focused when they return to work.

“Make sure your teen is taking breaks as well as studying,” says Annie.

Encourage them to build some breaks into their study schedule to spend time with friends or doing something they enjoy.

Annie also suggests not adding more to their plate during stressful times. “Give them time off chores and non-urgent family commitments, especially during the exam period.”

3. Food, drink, sleep, comfort

It’s hard to meet high-level goals, like passing a tricky maths exam, when basic needs like nutrition and sleep aren’t being met. If your teen is neglecting to look after themselves in order to only focus on their study, it’s time for you as the parent or carer to step in.

The teen years are a great time to teach young people that looking after themselves by eating and drinking healthily, getting plenty of physical activity and enough sleep can help prevent them from becoming excessively stressed or even unwell.

Annie says, “Having a holistically healthy lifestyle builds your resilience. Things like food, sleep and exercise – when you have a good relationship with them, they’re protective factors. Then if something does go wrong in your teenager’s life, they’re in a better position to tackle it head on.”

Not sure what to teach your teen when it comes to looking after themselves? Follow these links for information about physical activity for teens, healthy eating for teens, and sleep for teens.

4. Examine your expectations

Stress can set in when our expectations, or what we think are others’ expectations, don’t match up with what we’re able or willing to achieve.

Annie advises that parents reflect on what expectations they have for their child and how they’ve made these known, and ask their teenager what their own expectations are.

“Questions that parents can ask themselves are: ‘Have I spoken to my teen about my expectations?’ and ‘Have I spoken to my teen about their expectations?’ And once you’ve asked those two questions, ‘Do they match?’” says Annie.

Some parents might find that the source of their teen’s stress is that they have set very high expectations for themselves that they’re stretching to meet.

“Let’s say they are really stressed,” says Annie, “because they’ve set really high expectations for themselves. If your expectations don’t match those, it’s a great opportunity to say, ‘This isn’t the be all and end all, I’m not going to be mad if you don’t get 100% in this.’”

Other parents might realise that it’s their own high expectations of their child that are causing stress. Annie explains that it’s important to work with your teen to set goals that both of you think are fair.

“If you have really high expectations and your teenager is aware of them and doesn’t think they’re going to meet them, then it’s really important to talk about that. Do some self-reflection on why you have those expectations, and why they’re worried they aren’t going to meet them. Think about how you might be able to work with your teenager to adjust both of your expectations to be the same.”

Setting goals that are challenging but meetable is an important skill for teens to learn. ReachOut have a whole section on their website to teach teens and their parents how to set manageable, achievable goals.

A father and his son lean against the couch talking.

5. Provide tools to help manage stress

We’re not born knowing how to manage the types of stress that come with living in the modern world, but as we grow up we learn habits (good or bad) to cope with feelings of stress. Providing your teen with positive tools they can use to assist with stress can set them up for a lifetime of healthy habits.

ReachOut have a collection of tools and apps on their website gathered from around the world to help teens do everything from learn about meditation and relaxation, to setting goals, to learning how to run a 5K. You might suggest a few to them, go through the list together to see what might be appropriate, or even use the apps together.

6. Seek extra support when it’s needed

“Exam stress can be very serious, or it might not be very serious,” says Annie.

If you’re concerned that your teenager’s stress is serious and is starting to affect their health or wellbeing, or you’re not sure what step to take next on your own, you can seek support from a number of different places.

You might start by talking to your teenager’s school or talking with your GP. You can also follow the links below for organisations that can assist you in helping your teen.

ReachOut Parents

Beyondblue

Lifeline

If you ever think that the situation is an emergency, that your teenager’s safety or someone else’s safety is in danger, call Tripe Zero (000) for an ambulance immediately.

Further reading

ReachOut Parents: Exam stress and teenagers

5 ways to reduce stress right now

Many thanks to Annie Wylie and the ReachOut team for sharing their expertise and resources.

Last updated: 28 August 2018