COPING MECHANISMS for EXAM STRESS: TIPS for PARENTS – BY DR KHOO YI YI
Recent reports on the tragic and untimely deaths of teens who decided to take their own lives due to stressors of exams struck a chord with me and thus prompted me to write this piece. It brought me back to my secondary school years where I remembered studying extremely hard but my grades were merely middling. My peers were so brilliant and I constantly felt very mediocre. It is a feeling that I carry until today as a postgraduate student, that sense of insecurity, that I am just “not quite good enough” compared to others. Sure, I did not want to disappoint my parents although to be honest, that was at the back of my mind. I was mostly preoccupied with competing against myself, to achieving better grades. After all, being raised by traditional Chinese parents in those days, it was ingrained in me that the future is bright and beautiful only when you are a doctor or a lawyer. Although now, my mum begrudgingly admits that there are alternative career pathways, especially when she regales me with stories of her friends’ daughter who is an internationally recognized violin player.
As one reaches for the betterment of themselves, inevitably they will be faced with assessments throughout their lives. Following graduation from medical school, I thought that was it – absolutely no more exams. Little that I know that I would embark on this path of a postgraduate student faced with even more exams. Indeed, I can say for certain now that the stress of exams do not diminish with age, although my coping mechanisms are surely better. As teens report significant stress when faced with exams, they appear to be poor judges of the impact stress has on their health and mental health. It is therefore instrumental for parents to help their children develop essential coping methods for exam stress that they can fall back on, and last throughout their lives. Here, I list down 8 parental tips for helping your child cope with exam stress.
Tip #1: Provide a safe, protective and empathic home atmosphere
Your child may already be feeling the pressures of doing well at school and keeping up with their peers. Allow your home to be a warm, comforting space where they feel loved and nurtured. Be supportive and encouraging.
Tip #2: Talk about the stress
Let them be aware that you are available if they ever need someone to talk to, and to be their sounding board. Observe your child’s behaviour, encourage them to open up and talk to you. Ask gentle, leading questions about their situation and then address more specific areas. Try not to get too worked up yourself although you may be even more stressed about their exams! It’s important for them to sense that you are the adult here. Provide reassurance.
Tip#3: Ensure your teen eats well
I am staunch believer that the secret to improving your mental health is in your gut, as an unhealthy gut flora can have a detrimental impact on your brain health, leading to issues like anxiety and depression. A balanced diet, even when your child wants otherwise, is crucial especially in these times of heightened stress. Homemade, natural and nutritious food is a great idea.
Tip #4: Ensure a good sleep pattern
Ideally, adolescents should get at least 9 hours of sleep/night which may be hard what with all the extra-curricular activities and tuition. During exams, we tend to allow them to sleep late or wake up early to study as much as they can. This may be because they leave revision till the very last minute. Enforce strict rules of sleep and advise them to plan their study time wisely.
Tip #5: Study together
Children feel great support when parents get involved in their work. I was lucky because my dad was a whiz with math, and my mum used to read the Utusan Malaysia first and circled the articles which she thought was useful for me to brush up on my Malay. Think of creative ways to help them memorize, such as using mnemonics, or tunes to a song. If you are not able to help them in their homework, being physically there helps as well. Make your presence known.
Tip #6: Relax household chore rules
If your child has chores to do, try to relax this during exam periods to create a supportive environment of low stress. Allow them to spend that time revising instead.
Tip #7: Engage in physical activity
Exercise is one of the most effective stress busters. Encourage your child to be active. Solo activities such as going for a jog, swim, yoga, or a hike can help to relax one’s mind. Group activities that have a social component such as basketball and futsal are great as well. Help them find activities that they enjoy and build this into their daily routine.
Tip #8: Encourage your teen to do things that make them happy
Besides exercise, encourage your child to do things that they enjoy. It may be listening to music, dancing, gardening, drawing or pottery. Taking time off revising to do things they get pleasure from will help relax and give them a feel-good boost.
I hope these tips will help you instil good coping mechanisms for exams stress in your child. These may seem like common sense, but in the face of such pressures, they are easy to forget.