The exam period is not only stressful for the child, but for the parent too. Different parents take on different approaches in their parenting styles. As a parent, it is important to be conscious about your emotional management and not offload your stress on your children.
Are you a Tiger Parent, pushing your child to succeed according to your terms? Or are you a Cheerleader, encouraging your child to always strive for their personal best, and not be afraid of failure?
Dr Sanveen Kang-Sadhnani, Principal Clinical Psychologist at Thomson Paediatric Centre (The Child Development Centre) sheds insight on recognizing, managing and tackling our own and our child’s exam stress.
How can I tell if my child is stressed?
Younger children, may find it difficult to recognize and verbalize when they are experiencing stress. For children, stress can manifest itself through changes in behaviour and even feel physically ill.
Common changes can include acting irritable or moody, withdrawing from activities that used to be pleasurable, routinely expressing worries, complaining more than usual about school, crying, displaying surprising fearful reactions, clinging to a parent or teacher, sleeping too much or too little, or eating too much or too little.
Stress can also appear in physical symptoms such as stomach aches, nausea and headaches. If a child makes excessive trips to the school nurse or complains of frequent stomach aches or headaches (despite the absence of a medical condition), or if these complaints increase in certain situations (e.g., before a big test) that child may be experiencing significant stress.
What are stress management strategies I can use?
- Relaxation exercises – controlled breathing or visualization
- Teach your child how to calm down when stressed – this may mean learning to walk away from the task and coming back to the task energized and recharged
- Teach your child problem solving techniques
- Teach your children to listen to their bodies. Encourage them to listen to what their bodies are saying. While it’s normal for a child’s stomach to feel jumpy on the first day of school, leaving class because their stomach hurts or waking up repeatedly with a headache is a sign there’s too much going on.
- Prepare your children to deal with mistakes and things not going as planned.
How can I support my child during the exam period?
Provide your child with a safe place for your child where they are willing to discuss their challenges with you, teaching your child simple stress management techniques and also ensuring that your child is well rested and has sufficient nutrition.
It is important that children have the mental and physical strength to deal with everyday life and stresses, especially during the exam period. Getting a good night’s rest and starting the day with a wholesome breakfast, having breakfast, be it something as simple as oats or Milo, is important.
It is important to distinguish tolerable stress from toxic stress. Positive stress is a normal part of learning and development. As children learn to cope with frustration, overcome obstacles and confront challenges, they will experience a certain amount of stress. This level of stress is usually safe and manageable, especially if a child has the support of a healthy home environment.
When parents react negatively because they are stressed when their child does not live up to expectation, it adversely affects the child’s confidence to perform.
3 Phrases to avoid saying:
“Don’t worry, it’s not a big deal, it’s only a bit of paper, and whatever happens we still…”
Listen to your child’s fears and anxieties. Minimizing their challenges may leave them feeling invalidated and as such, unlikely to see help when it is required in the future. It also gives them the message that they are giving you additional problems to attend to.
“Remember how well your sister did.” Never compare.
“You should have started studying earlier. Next time, prepare sooner.”
Don’t jump right into problem solving
Listen and validate emotions first. Sometimes, when we see that a child is upset or frustration, our first instinct is to jump in and fix the problem. This usually involves a lot of questions and instructions on what to do; all of which is very intimidating. As Singaporeans, we are very efficient in problem-solving. Whilst that is important, it is equally as important to learn to connect and stay with your child’s emotions before you re-direct and problem solve.
Be careful of imposing your own expectations on your child
From a very early age, children use their parents’ reactions to understand themselves and the world. Children do pick up on their parents’ anxieties or disappointment and this knowledge impacts their confidence and at times, willingness to try again.
Parents often experience anxiety related to parenting and ensuring that they have encouraged their children to be the best that they can be. Sometimes, when we are too focused on our children being their best, we may end up placing too much pressure on our children – as we may appear performance focused.
Children are aware that they are being evaluated and are afraid of making mistakes. This is unhealthy as they are not only overly self-critical but also may not be open to learning from their own mistakes and re-attempting.
Are we putting too much pressure on our children? Or is cultivating a never-give-up spirit among them more important?
Gemma Church (Head of Young Learners) and Charlie Spiller (Head of Primary Courses) from The British Council, add on more tips on how parents can help children manage exam stress.
Create a conducive study space
As school starts to become more serious, start by creating a study space environment that your child can use to study at home. When choosing a study space, consider your child’s personality and tailor the space accordingly; do they prefer to work in absolute silence, or will they fare better with some activity, noise or movement nearb
Talk to your child about stress and how to deal with it
Acknowledge that it’s very normal to have feelings of anxiety, but it’s about how we deal with it. Reassure them that the examination grade is not the be all and end all. It does not dictate what they do in their future job or how much they earn; it’s an indicator of how they are performing at that time. Share your childhood worries! It helps children to know their parents have been through the same situation that they are now going through.
Understand why your child feels stress
Is it not knowing the content of the exam, or not understanding the expectation of the task at hand? Many times, children are stressed because they simply don’t understand what the question is asking for, and they miss the point. Parents should make space for addressing these issues, so they know how to respond appropriately.
Run through the examination process with your child, down to the little details
For example, do you think there will be a time limit? What will the format be like? Will you use a pencil or pen? Is there any other stationery you need? Do help to arrange their pencil case, make sure they have enough sleep the night before and ensure they get to school on time. These things seem small but will make all the difference on the day!
Encourage them to carry out basic breathing exercises
For example; take a slow breath in through the nose for about four seconds. Hold your breath for one or two seconds. Exhale slowly through the mouth over about four seconds. Wait two to three seconds before taking another breath. Repeat for at least five to 10 breaths.
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