It’s exam season – and as ChildLine launches a campaign to help children suffering from exam stress, Hannah Stephenson looks at how parents can help their children cope...
It happens ever year – as exam pressure builds up, help agencies and counsellors receive more children and parents through their doors trying to find ways to alleviate their anxieties.
Children’s fears that they won’t achieve what they see as vital grades can leave them feeling anxious, unable to sleep, eat or function normally. Such is the concern, that ChildLine has launched an awareness campaign to let young people know that they can talk to the organisation if they are suffering exam stress.
According to the charity, 2011/12 saw a 47 per cent increase in concerns about school and education and some 25 per cent of counselling relating to school and education was about exam pressures.
Where exams were the issue, 66 per cent of counselling was conducted through online chat or email. Just under a third of these contacts took place in exam season between May and June 2011. Other bodies are also trying to help alleviate the situation. Counsellors at the University of Edinburgh are drafting in therapy pets to help stressed students cope with their exams.
Typical symptoms children may present if suffering from exam stress include sleep problems, bed-wetting, reluctance to go to school and not eating. Some become withdrawn and spend more time on their own in their bedroom.
Clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew, who specialises in child and family psychology at a Lancashire practice, says that every May she sees an increased number of cases of children suffering from symptoms of exam stress and that the number of primary school children suffering from anxiety is also on the rise.
“SATS tests are putting primary school children under pressure to perform because of league tables. We are seeing younger children, aged seven to 11, being more stressed out by exams. Children of those ages are much more aware of themselves in relation to their peer group and are aware of parental expectations and most of our referrals about anxiety come from seven-to-11-year-olds, who are at a developmental stage and are very vulnerable and don’t have control about their anxiety.”
She adds that such anxiety isn’t always to do with pushy parents.
“We see more mothers than fathers and often the mothers will be anxious that if their child doesn’t achieve, it will affect their future lifestyles. These are mothers whose children are not necessarily high fliers and who have realistic expectations, but feel powerless to help.
Andrew advises: “Don’t underestimate the importance of reassuring your child that if they try hard and do their best, that’s good enough for you whatever the outcome. Empathise that exam season is a hard time and don’t be dismissive about how difficult it is. Ask if they’ve any areas you can help them with and make sure they do things away from studying, such as trips out.”
There are also a number of relaxation CDs and downloads for children which can help with anxiety available from websites, which feature breathing exercises, relaxation and visualisation techniques, where younger children might visualise themselves as super-heroes. She suggests that when dealing with older children, parents should talk to them about the physical symptoms of anxiety, based around adrenaline, visualising that adrenaline rush as excitement and a positive thing rather than anxiety.
“It’s your body’s way of preparing yourself to do the very best you can do,” she says.
Encourage older children to let off steam by doing exercise, say going for a bike ride or a swim, in between studying, she advises, and keep the routine of mealtimes and bedtimes as steady as possible. Don’t be afraid to talk to the school, either, she says.
“It might help if a teacher has a talk with your child about their expectations.”
The NSPCC offers the following tips for parents:
Don’t place unnecessary pressure on your children to gain certain grades. They may feel they have failed if they don’t achieve what they thought was expected of them.
Encourage children to take regular breaks, eat snacks and exercise.
Help them revise by leaving them the space and time to do so. Be relaxed about chores or untidiness and understand they might be moody.
Allow your children to revise at night if that’s what works best for them. However, make sure that they get enough sleep to keep their energy levels up in the day.
Be supportive and help alleviate their worries by talking to them.
Let them know that ChildLine has produced a series of revision tips to help.