Tearful one minute furious the next. Teenagers are changeable at the best of times, but at this time of year levels of emotions can really peak due to the pressure of exams. Even though assessments and exams are often spread through the year, for the majority of young people this is the time when the focus is really on them to achieve. Not only that, they have to make decisions about what they will do next. They need to make A -level choices and might be leaving their school to go to a new institution in September. Older teens are planning the transition to work or university and leaving home. For many who are less able, their options are limited with the very real prospect of being left behind while their peers move on without them.
Fear of failure is huge for young people on the brink of adulthood. Even if they seem to take a very casual attitude to their future, it is highly likely that this is a form of avoidance. Refusing to revise? Refusing to talk about it? Don’t be fooled, deep down somewhere, your son or daughter is terrified of what lies ahead, just as you are. However, it can be extremely frustrating as parents to see them seeming to let the opportunities they have slip away and not being able to do anything about it. This is a difficult time for parents, how well children cope with academic pressure can have a massive impact on the family as a whole. It is important to take a step back and think about the best way to deal with this stressful time.
It might help to keep in mind that teenagers however they may appear and whatever they may say, underneath are still part child, struggling with the exciting but scary concept of going it alone. Psychologically around this time, children are in the latter stages of separation from parents, but not every child is ready for the independence and responsibility that transition from school/ college brings. The combination of exams and the future they represent, at precisely the time when young people are grappling with the concept of themselves as individuals, distinct from their family is a massive piece of emotional work.
Moodiness, tiredness and challenging behaviour are often the result of all this emotional adjustment. Unfortunately this is usually aimed at the parents and siblings and can flare up unpredictably, so that it can feel that everyone has to be on eggshells around the teenager. When you try to talk to young people about the important issues facing them, you can come up against a brick wall of resistance and anger, especially if they are your own children.
For parents this can be a very draining and worrying time. If young people don’t seem to be taking on the responsibility for prioritising their exams themselves, we can feel compelled to take it on instead. Yet this is unlikely to be helpful because you can’t make another person, even your child, do well in an exam unless they want to. Even if they want to do well, maybe they just don’t have the emotional capacity for it yet, remember children are all individuals maturing at different rates. Getting into lots of arguments about revision could lead to a breakdown in the relationship. Children may internalise an idea that your love is conditional on their success, they may feel that you no longer understand or empathise with them and this can cause a rupture that is hard to repair.
What are parents to do then? You fear for them if they fail academically and you fear for your relationship if you argue about it. It may help to think back to the baby days, when you could not get your son or daughter to go to sleep, even when you knew they were tired and you had met all their needs. It’s a similar situation now, in that you cannot make a baby go to sleep any more than you can make a teenager revise. You can only encourage and provide the ideal conditions. Then it’s up to the baby, but it really helps if you are there, right beside them, helping them to feel safe and loved until sleep comes.
Conversations about what sort of person your son or daughter wants to be, their values and aspirations, can be helpful. This gives opportunities for strengths to be validated and anxieties to be voiced. Parents need to resist ‘teaching’, ‘explaining’ or ‘fixing’ when children express their insecurities. Try to keep in mind that the aim of this communication is to create a safe space for your child, for feelings to be explored and your role is simply to acknowledge what you have heard.
Be clear with your child that you value education and want them to succeed because it will give them more options in life. Ask your son or daughter what helps them to prepare for exams and whether there is anything you can do to support them. Maybe you could help them be organised with a revision timetable, or offer to help them memorise information by testing them at intervals. Perhaps you could make an agreement for studying with regular breaks and treats to help with motivation. Let them know how proud you are of any efforts they seem to make.
Be available, to listen and give loads of praise, encouragement and help when asked.
Sympathise, even if they seem very moany, it really is one of the hardest times in a person’s life.
Some young people might be over doing it and need help to take a break from studying. Encourage some socialising and switching off regularly.
Give the message that you love and value your child whatever their achievements. Remember, he or she is a separate individual with their whole life ahead of them to rectify any mistakes they might make now.
Finally, ask yourself, ‘what is it I fear?’ Could the situation with your son or daughter be triggering some buried anxiety in you? Did someone in your past ‘go off the rails’ and never seem to recover? Maybe your fears from another situation are unduly effecting how you deal with this difficult time with your own child now. Parenting is never easy, it is emotionally demanding and at times deeply unsettling work. If you are going through a tough period with your children it is important to look after yourself. Make plans to have some fun, find ways to relax and unwind and try to talk to someone you trust.
First published 29th April, 2012