How NOT to PRESSURISE your teen during exams

ParentCircle got seven of the world’s top experts to share their opinion on how parents can refrain from putting pressure on their children during exams. Read on for interesting pointers.

By Dr Meghna Singhal  • 13 min read

How NOT to PRESSURISE your teen during exams

“My parents care more about my marks than they do about me!”

Students tell me this all the time. As a clinical psychologist specializing in adolescent mental health, I have conducted many workshops on tackling exam anxiety for scores of Grade 10 and 12 students, and this was the most frequent complaint I heard from them. And while we know this isn’t true, there are obviously some mixed signals going on. So parents, this article is for you. If your teen is scheduled to take his Grade 10 or 12 board exams, read on to find out how you can help your teen deal with his exam anxiety, without becoming another source of stress for him.

As a parent, your job is to ensure that you are adequately involved in your child’s exams. Neither so under-involved that you have no clue what exam your child is writing next nor so over-involved that you end up micro-managing your child. But it is also important to avoid losing focus and look at the larger picture. Let us hear it from seven of the top parenting experts around the world, with whom ParentCircle recently interacted, about their take on how parents can refrain from putting pressure on their children during exams:

“Our children are not their marks”
Michelle Mitchell, parenting educator and author of Everyday Resilience: Helping Kids Deal with Friendship Drama, Academic Pressure and the Self-Doubt of Growing Up, talks about parental pressure, “We end up communicating to our children that if you don’t achieve this or do this [some high lofty ideal], you’re not enough. You’re not going to be happy in life, nothing’s going to go well if you don’t do this. We put fear in our children to get them to work harder, to get better results. But that’s not true.…Try to look at your child holistically. They are more than a number, they are more than marks, and they are also more than their careers. We want them to be good, decent human beings who are happy. Staying connected, taking the pressure off, and realising that ultimately if children are stressed, they’re not going to do their best anyway. So, putting pressure may actually backfire on us.”

“I love you… and it’s your call”
Dr William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving your Kids more Control over their Lives, say, “Our instinct as parents is to protect and lead our kids, usually with the assumption that we know what’s best for them. But when parents work harder than their kids to solve their problems, their kids get weaker, not stronger. If you spend ninety-five units of energy trying to help your child be successful, he will spend five units of energy. If you become frustrated or anxious and raise the ante, spending ninety-eight units of energy in clamping down even harder, your child will respond accordingly, and spend just two units. This counter-productive dynamic will not change until the energy changes. If you act as if it’s your job to see that your child studies for his exams, you reinforce the mistaken belief that somebody other than he is responsible for getting his studying done.”
They also talk about how pressuring your child can be harmful for his brain: “The unrelenting pressure from you also lowers your child’s sense of control and weakens the connection between his thinking brain (prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for planning, reasoning, and decision-making) and feeling brain (amygdala, which regular our stress response). If I as a parent am driving my child, he ends up responding to the constant threats and stresses, inhibiting him from developing a strong healthy brain he’s going to carry into adulthood—a brain that can think for itself, a brain that is resilient in the face of stress.”

“Life is not a competition”
Advises Dr Justin Coulson, parenting expert and author of 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know: Positive Solutions for Everyday Parenting Challenges, “We want our children to do well and its absolutely important that they work hard. Our job, though, is not to make sure they’re at top of their class or that they’re earning the most money. Life is not a competition. Life is about helping others and being a good person. And if we can help our children to do well enough, and help them learn to be a good human being, they will have a happy life. I know lots and lots of wealthy people and they are not happy, because there are character flaws, there are issues with the way they got their money or the way they run their lives or the way they are with their families. It matters so much more that we’re good people than we’re rich or high-achieving people.” Also, if parents insist on good marks all the time, children start feeling that they are loved only so far as they get good marks. Says Dr Coulson, “Teach your child to never tie their worth as a person to their grades. Their grade doesn’t tell anything about their character. Their grade doesn’t tell anything about the kind of friend they are, what their passions and interests are, their special talents and abilities, their strengths. Their grade doesn’t tell anything about them at all.”

“Stay calm…and realistic”
Dr Michael G. Thompson, international speaker and New York Times bestselling author of The Pressured Child: Helping Your Child find Success in School and in Life, says, “Parents need to stay calm themselves. The risks of parents being incredibly annoying during exam periods outweighs any good they can do at this last minute. Worrying and screaming doesn’t lift your child to the top half of the class. Love, support, and realism are the most important things for a child. If you see your child making an effort and still not getting high scores, just admire the heroism of her school journey. If you see your child not working hard, say so, and try to create an academic atmosphere at home—quiet, focused, and calm. Let your children know that you see his or her strengths, and have confidence that even if your child doesn’t go to the most important institute in India, she or he will have a good and productive life.”

“Have ongoing conversations with your teen”
Says Dr Erica Frydenberg, faculty at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and author of Families Coping: Effective Strategies for You and Your Child, “Mutually problem-solve this together with your child, where you feel the need for success and your child is feeling the pain and the pressure. Engage in these conversations earlier rather than later. Let’s start using a different language. Instead of grades and marks, start thinking about your child’s health and well-being. Because we already have evidence that a lot of young people are becoming overly anxious due to exams and attempting suicide. And that’s something no parent wants.”

“There’s always a Plan B”
Opines Karen Young, parenting educator and author of Hey Warrior: A book for Kids about Anxiety, “Parents need to realise there’s always another option to get to where you want to go. If we raise our children to believe that there’s only one way to get to your goal, we’re setting them up for disappointment. So, let your kids know that they have to be accountable to their potential and encourage them to do their best, but that’s enough. They don’t need to do better than that.”

Adds Dr Coulson, “Though one test may have some impact on the life your child may lead, it doesn’t have to have a huge impact. Research from around the world shows that adults change their careers 6, 8, 10, and even 12 times, from the time they leave school to the time they stop working. That means a lot of adults still don’t know what they want to do. I know so many people who have become doctors that were high school drop-outs. In fact, one of my friends, who is a doctor practicing in Adelaide, didn’t finish high school. His parents thought he was going to be an absolute disaster. But Jeremy, at the age of 22, decided he wanted to change his life. He went back to school as a 22-year-old and started to gather some qualifications. It was very hard for him to do it but by the time he was 28-29 years old, he was a doctor. And now he’s 40 and he’s a successful doctor. I myself barely finished high school! I scored in the bottom 15% of all Australian students in Year 12. But at the age of 27, with a wife and two children and a house to pay for, I went back to school, where I spent 8½ years as a full-time student, while I was paying off my house and having more children. And I got an undergraduate degree and then a PhD. And now I write books and give talks about psychology and parenting and families. If you don’t do well, its okay! You can go work for a year or two and then you can go back to university. You can find another way. There’s always another way. If parents can help their children know, especially if they haven’t done well, hug them and say, “You haven’t done so well but its okay. I still love you. And guess what? There’s always another way.”

So parents, remember that it’s your child’s exam, not yours. If you are called for an outing or dinner by a friend and you say, “I can’t come because my child’s exams are on”, you are indirectly pressurising your child. Don’t treat your child’s exams as your own; you will end up passing your anxieties to your child, if not with your words, through your behaviour or body language. So, calm down and breathe! And support your child in a way that’s helpful, not further anxiety-provoking.

In a Nutshell

  • You pressurising your child for exams is likely to backfire because if children are extremely stressed, they can’t do their best anyway
  • Pressuring the children weakens the connection between their thinking brain and feeling brain, and inhibits the child from developing a brain that is resilient to threats and stresses
  • To be a good human being is more important than getting good marks
  • There are multiple ways to achieve one’s goals and telling our children otherwise puts unnecessary pressure on them

What you can do right away

  • During your child’s exams, keep your anxieties at bay. Remain calm and in control, while supporting your child
  • Tell your child that while you love him, he is responsible for his studies, not you
  • Ask him how he would like to be supported by you and then back off
  • Use humour to diffuse tension in your household and add the much-needed relief to the situation

About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 19 February 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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