Another extraordinary year: how to support your child through this term's round of final assessments

By Heather Rutherford
21 April 2021

The time has finally arrived. 

After many months – years in fact – of work, final assessments for Years 11 and 13 are on the horizon.  

Exam time is an anxiety-filled few weeks for any child. This year, with all the uncertainty and high-profile discussions over how they would be assessed while being shunted in and out of the classroom, it may be different but no less stressful for our teens. 

The lack of clarity and the uncertainty about how, when and on what they would be assessed have made it hard for many children to stay focused. And no wonder: the shifting sands against a backdrop of Covid have made for unstable footing for our teens, who’ve had to manage months of homeschooling, cut off from the friends and activities they love and the fun that is any teen’s lifeblood – and an important counterbalance to their academic focus.

I have three kids who are now teens and young adults, and we're embarking on our sixth set of public exams – or, in this case, final assessments.  We've learned lots over the years (some things the hard way) about successfully navigating the inevitable stress and anxiety of the traditional marathon of GCSE and A-level exams – lessons that are just as relevant for this years' hybrid.  

In my recent ad hoc survey of Year 13 students about what they feel they (and their year 11 peers) need from parents over the coming weeks, the response was unanimously that they’d like us to ask them directly what we can do to help.  

They say that it would be great if we could remember that they want to do well, that they put enough pressure on themselves, that they certainly don’t need any more from us. They still feel the stress, despite this year being different. They’d appreciate us biting our tongues to keep ourselves from anxiously and repeatedly asking, ‘Shouldn’t you be revising?’ They’d like us to cut them some slack – they will be grumpy – and instead focus on the little things we can do to help them feel loved, understood and supported, such as lots of their favourite food and random acts of kindness. And please could we stop telling our friends and family about their offers and the grades they need to get! 

We hear you.

It’s completely reasonable for our teens to feel a level of anxiety as they head off into the exam hall or classroom, especially after such a disjointed and challenging year. Our job, rather than piling on the pressure, dismissing the anxiety or setting our expectations too high, is to tune into and normalise their big feelings and help them cope in a positive, helpful and compassionate way – and above all help them feel valued and unconditionally loved. 

Here are five ways we can do just that: 

1. Try not to take it personally

The way we feel comes out in what we do, so we can expect to see our kids expressing some of their stress and anxiety. Perhaps they’ll be more irritable, withdrawn, distracted or argumentative with us. We’re often on the receiving end of their expressions of emotion, and it’s helpful to remember that we’re their safe space, where they can express how they feel and know they’ll still be loved. That is absolutely the way we want it to be. 

It’s hard, but if we can manage our expectations and remind ourselves that this isn’t about us, it gives us space to pause, take a deep breath, be that calm support and respond to what they need rather than react to what we see.  

2. Create a positive soundtrack 

We know, and our kids tell us, that nagging, telling them off or ‘helpfully’ reminding them of everything that’s riding on these assessments isn’t motivating. Our natural, parental inclination is often to point out all the things that our children should be doing, that they perhaps get wrong or could do better. We’re only trying to guide them into good habits, help them improve and be their best, but all this ‘attention’ can come across as criticism, judgment or blame. It’s highly demotivating. When our children hear an endless negative soundtrack, they go on the defensive, stop listening or take this negativity on board as their own internal voice – all of which chips away at their self-esteem. 

Instead, a more effective approach that sets them up to do their best is to focus on all the things that they get right and acknowledge their attitude, effort and improvement – and not just around exam preparation and revision. Our positive attention helps our kids feel motivated; helps them believe in themselves, builds resilience and changes the soundtrack in our home. 

So instead of ‘Can you pick up your towel? And goodness your room is a bombsite’, ‘Did you hear ANYTHING I just asked you?’, ‘Those revision files are not going to open themselves’ or ‘You haven’t rung me once all week’, try instead:

  • ‘Despite all the pressure you’re feeling, you managed a smile, and thanks for saying thanks for supper. It was my pleasure.
  • ’‘Thanks for replying to my message. I know you must be really busy and probably pretty stressed about this week. I love hearing from you.’ 
  • ‘I can see you worked really hard and it can be frustrating when you don’t feel you’re quite there yet. You should be proud of all your effort.’
We may have little control over whether they know enough about osmosis, Pythagoras theorem or their poetry analysis, but we can take a deep breath, pause and think about where we put our focus. Positive attention boosts their self-esteem and helps them feel deeply connected.  It gives them a feeling of competence, confidence and helps them manage their stress – all of which will help them get through their upcoming assessments, while building resilience for the next challenge that lies ahead.  

3. Help them to get emotionally ready 

My mum used to say, ‘Don’t worry – you’ll be fine’, and although she meant well, my first and only thought was ‘How does SHE know?’ It can be hard to pitch the support just right, but instead of downplaying or brushing their feelings aside, when we empathise and help our kids learn to recognise their emotions and cope with them constructively, we’re helping them to develop critical emotional intelligence and gain resilience.  

Rather than ‘You’ll be fine’, ‘If you’d started a bit earlier, you might not be so stressed’ or ‘But I thought they cancelled GCSEs?’, you might try:  

  • ‘I’m wondering whether you’re just really worried about your test. I remember it feeling pretty daunting, the first time I sat a test in an exam hall.’ 
  • ‘I imagine you’re feeling the stress – knowing you really, really want to get the grades to meet your offers but also feeling a bit overwhelmed. That’s an awful lot of pressure.’ 
  • ‘For you to speak to me like that shows me just how upset you are. I’m wondering whether you’ve just had enough of revising – I bet it seems as though it’s been going on for ages’
Rather than dismissing, losing our cool or trying to fix it all, it’s about:

Stopping what we’re doing and tuning into our teen. 

Naming to tame the big emotions, as US neuropsychiatrist Dr Dan Siegel suggests. Don’t be afraid to articulate the feeling – you won’t make it worse. Quite the opposite is true, and research shows that true empathy and understanding help put our children in a better place to recognise and handle the big emotions such as anxiety, stress and fear. The challenge is to get into their shoes with them, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel.  

Helping them problem-solve. Once you’ve connected with empathy, then you’re in a place to support your child to think through solutions – perhaps helping them to think about getting a good night’s sleep, eating well, exercising or practising deep breathing. When we’re overwhelmed with emotion, we can't think. When our kids are feeling stress and anxiety, they aren’t in a place where they can learn. Helping them know that it’s normal to feel anxious (it is, after all, our body’s primitive threat-response system – in this case the threat is an assessment) will help them move through the worry to a place where they can start coming up with coping strategies and solutions. 

4. Remember that unconditional love relieves stress.

Our love expressed in even tiny gestures can help relieve anxiety and stress. I love the idea of learning each of our children’s ‘Love Languages’. First recognised by Gary Chapman, the five Love Languages are ways that we each like to communicate and accept love. Just as each child has a unique temperament, they also have favourite ways that they like to receive love. These languages are physical touch, affirmation, quality time, acts of service or receiving gifts. What better time to tune in to their deep emotional needs than when they might be feeling wobbly, insecure or petrified over exams? 

Over the years, I’ve noticed that for one of my daughters, her Love Languages are quality time and acts of service. For her, offering to sit and quiz her on her biology or leaving a little note and small thoughtful present in her room hits the mark. My other daughter’s Love Language is more physical, so a huge hug or a foot rub might do the trick. For my son, one way straight to his heart is through his stomach, so his favourite noodles for supper, a plate of baked biscuits or a well-stocked fridge all work well.  

Whether they’re at home or away at school, getting creative with little gestures, kind words and quality time soothes, releases tension and supports them during this period of anxiety and stress, helping them feel unconditionally loved and setting them up to perform at their best.

5. Keep the connection going

Over the coming weeks – which will be some of the most challenging in our teens’ young lives – they need us by their side. They need us to believe in them, support them, listen to them, reassure them and ask them how we can help. A deep connection requires us to put ourselves in their shoes, show a genuine interest and be aware of the weight of expectation. They need to believe to their core that our connection, our love, are unconditional. Our expectations need to be reasonable and they need to feel that we are there to support them without judgment.  Our children will then have the freedom to try hard, accept the risk of failure and stretch themselves to do their best. 

Finally, as the weeks unfold, we should try and refrain from ringing the minute they get out of their test to ask them how it went. Rather than the expectation intrinsic in ‘How did it go?’ (which can often be mistaken for ‘I’m really hoping you’re going to tell me that it went really well’), try a subtler ‘I’m so glad you rang. How are you feeling?’ or ‘You look a little disheartened. I am guessing the test was tough.’ We want to show that we’re interested in how they’re feeling rather than the outcome of their assessment. Before, during and after, they need our support, belief, empathy, compassion and love. 

We wish you all the best of luck over the coming weeks.  For more information, support and advice please do get in touch:

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