Teenagers and exam stress

My 14-year-old son suffers from very bad exam stress and anxiety. He is now in second year and he finds it really hard to cope with the anxiety that exams cause him.

Even though he is a straight-A student, he can get into a state about anxiety and will say he can’t do it, and that he is stupid, even though none of this is true. It causes great stress at home and I would love some advice on how best we can help him.

The first step is to make sure you listen to and support your son. Don’t dismiss his worries: listen carefully, encouraging him to express his feelings. Even though they are irrational, it is helpful that he expresses the underlying worrying thoughts he might think. It is a great relief to have someone who can listen compassionately as he talks about his worries and frustrations.

Help him challenge his worrying thoughts
Ask him questions that challenge the negative thoughts that underpin his worry – “I know it feels like that at the moment, but is that really true?” “How did you mange to get the study done the last time?” 

Encourage him to come up with more balanced thoughts such as, Sometimes I get anxious, but I know I can do it, or I’m just feeling a bit anxious, this helps me prepare, or I will do my best and enjoy the process.

Sometimes it can be helpful to write these new thoughts out on coping cards that he can refer to. It is also helpful to teach him some relaxation and focusing techniques that he can learn to use during anxious times.

Problem solve around the study routine
Brainstorm with your son different study strategies that will help manage his anxiety. Having a good routine about when and where study happens and coming up with a clear realistic plan of study can keep anxiety at bay.

For example, he might find it useful to start with an easier subject to get started before tackling a more difficult challenge before finally reviewing what he has learnt. Simple things such as having regular breaks or even playing some music during study can all help him be more relaxed.

Put study and exams in perspective
Help your son keep other enjoyable interests within his routine to ensure balance and perspective. Despite the pressure of exams, encourage him to keep up one or two other enjoyable and social activities that can act as stress relievers. Make sure he integrates physical exercise and regular healthy eating into his daily routine.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, May 2015. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.