How To Deal With Exam Stress: Tips From Child Psychologists

This exam season, you and your child do not have to go through the usual stress that accompanies it. We bring you tips from experts on how to help your child deal with exam-related anxiety.

By Leena Ghosh

How To Deal With Exam Stress: Tips From Child Psychologists

“We don’t grow when things are easy. We grow when we face challenges” - Joyce Meyer

Indeed, that is one way of looking at exams. When exams approach, the environment at home usually changes. Parents cancel their social appointments and children suddenly have a new set of rules about how much time they can spend outside and for how long they must study. Curfews are set, and the television is switched off.

However, an examination need not be the monster we make it out to be. The Oxford dictionary defines examinations as ‘a formal test of a person's knowledge or proficiency in a subject or skill'. And that’s all an exam really is – a test to understand how much your child has learnt so far in each subject. How well he does in an examination does not define him or his individual talents.

As a parent, it's your duty to help your child prepare for her exams but you should also let her know it’s not a life-and-death situation. It’s just a challenge she needs to face to evaluate how much she’s learnt at school so far.

Now, that you know what examinations stand for, here are a few reasons why your child could be stressed about exams.

Causes of exam stress

High expectations: It’s not always that parents have high expectations from their children. Sometimes, even children set high goals for themselves and the fear of not performing well enough makes them feel stressed.

Not enough preparation: Last-minute preparations never really help and both you and your child know that. If he is not well prepared for examinations, he is bound to feel stressed about his performance.

Constant worry about the future: Somehow an exam score is believed to define how smart a child is. This is not true. However, worrying about the question paper and how much she’ll be able to score has an impact on her stress levels.

Before you help your child deal with exam stress, you should know some common mistakes parents make while trying to help their children, as told by Arundhati Swamy, a counsellor and the Head of Parent Engagement Programs at ParentCircle.

Common mistakes parents make

  • Even before parents try to help their child cope with exam stress, they would do well to check their own stress levels. Many parents know they are stressed but tend to ignore it, believing that the child is more important and hence needs all the attention and care.
  • Some vulnerable parents fall prey to the strong opinions and advice from extended family members. This can be confusing for parents, and they end up confusing their child too. While it’s helpful to have someone older than you or a friend to talk with and share worries, offloading your worries on several people will only invite a flood of advice. Do remember that most people’s advice is based on their own experiences, which could be quite different from yours.
  • Using comparisons with other children, repeatedly recalling past mistakes and harping on the child’s limitations are methods that will make the child feel upset, angry and helpless.
  • Some working parents take leave during the exam period so that they can support the child. This often backfires, when the parent’s presence becomes interference. They hover and micro-manage the child’s routine.
How To Deal With Exam Stress: Tips From Child Psychologists

Expert tips on helping your child cope with exam stress

1. Explain the significance of exams

Dr Nithya Poornima, Assistant Professor, Dept of Clinical Psychology, NIMHANS, Bengaluru, says it’s important to make the child understand what an examination stands for. “Exams are actually meant to assess learning. Ask your child to focus on the joys and the process of learning and see exams as a concept to evaluate learning. Then, the whole experience becomes different and the levels of stress come down,” she says.

Aparna Balasundaram, Psychotherapist and Founder of LifeSkills Experts, Chennai, says that it’s important to remind children that exams are not the end of the world, especially board exams. “Children start hearing about board exams from class 6 and start preparing for it from class 8. The board exams become a monster that they have to slay. Remind your child that it’s important to do well, but is not a life-and-death situation. Ask her if she heard anyone ask her parent’s score in the board exams!”

2. De-stress yourself first

Arundhati says it's as important for parents to de-stress during exams as it is for their child. "Make sure you have your own stress-busters – do whatever helps to relax you. Be completely aware of the things that raise your stress levels – it could be talking to other parents (comparisons fill the mind) or depriving yourself of time-offs. Examine your thoughts and behaviours that trigger additional stress. Parents must first take loving care of themselves so that they can take loving care of their children," she points out.

3. Continue with a normal schedule

Aparna says that as a family it’s important to not give exams too much importance. “Don’t stop going out or calling people over. Parents tend to schedule their lives around their child’s exam. That’s when we create too much stress in the home environment. Do family things together, like going out for a movie or dinner. When your children see you not getting stressed about exams, they too will adopt that attitude," she says.

Arundhati says that working parents can take leave if they feel like it but they should also learn to give their child some space. “By all means, avail leave if it helps you and your child. But your sudden presence at home can also upset the home atmosphere. Plan ahead with your child, respect her space and learn from her what support she would like to get from you. Also, use your time at home to do things that are relaxing - things that you would enjoy, but are not distracting for your child.

4. Use the imagery technique

Aparna recommends the imagery technique to overcome stress related to exams. “Ask your child to close his eyes and think of a time when he did something well. It could be related to academics or sports or any extra-curricular activity. This is called a snapshot in success. Once he visualises that, he can understand that since he has succeeded in the past, he could do it again. This acts as a positive reinforcement and helps alleviate any anxiety he feels about the upcoming exams,” she explains.

5. Practise relaxation techniques

Dr Nithya recommends practising relaxation methods while studying for exams. “Some children are more anxious or set higher expectations. It’s important to have some component of relaxation included in their daily schedules, as when you become too anxious, it is difficult for you to remember things. Taking deep breaths, going for walks, sketching, colouring, listening to music or taking breaks will help your child relax,” she says.

She adds, “Your child can visualise going through the process of exams, approaching the exam hall in a relaxed way or sitting down in the exam hall in a relaxed way. Often our mind only believes what we can see.”

6. Focus on the present

Dr Nithya says that both students and parents should try and remain as focussed on the present as they can. “Worrying about the future makes it more stressful for everyone. You can’t predict the future and it’s beyond everyone’s control. Teach your child to focus on the task at hand and what he can do right now,” she says.

7. Ask your child what help he needs

Arundhati says that it’s important for parents to assess the kind of help the child needs. “Much as you have tried to push your child to work hard, talking about it endlessly will only make him shut down. Ask him what kind of help he needs from you and others, help him with practical suggestions and, most importantly, maintain a calm and peaceful atmosphere at home. This will, in many ways, reduce the stress for you and your child,” she explains.

As parents, you have to remember that exam season is a stressful time and your child will face some amounts of anxiety, no matter what. Do your best to support and encourage her whenever she needs it, and help her do her best. Good luck!

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