Leona O'Neill: Stressful exam season set to test parental understanding

With GCSE and A-level exams looming in the near future, parents need to make sure that hey offer appropriate support and reassurance to their kids as the stress levels rise during the revision period, writes Leona

Exam season is on its way, bringing stress for teens and parents alike

EXAM season is just around the corner and our children are no doubt by now feeling the pressure and stress. Kids can at times feel overwhelmed by the enormity of revision and exams and how they feel that the results will define their future.

They are often told by school, by parents and society that exams are a hugely important factor in their future success in life. Children can struggle with the weight of this burden, and parents who know the realities of how the world works often worry that their child won’t do well and it’ll be the end of the world.

In our house, my oldest son is preparing for his GCSEs, so I am that soldier. The stress is already starting to build for everyone in his year and, no doubt, the A-level students.

My son’s school is fabulous, putting on extra revision classes after hours and giving the students encouragement every step of the way. The boys got a Braveheart-esque pep talk last week from a Mr Beattie which left them all fired-up, motivated and ready to take on the world and whatever challenges that might arise.

That’s the kind of encouragement we all need to be giving them at this stage, with the exams just weeks away. We need to be there, telling our children that they can do this, that we believe in them, that their best is good enough. And if we see them get stressed, we need to give them space to re-charge and regroup and get back at it again.

I remember the feeling of exam stress only too well. Three years ago, I went back to university to do a degree and found myself back in a sweaty sports hall lined with chairs, that sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach, thinking that I couldn’t remember what I had learned in the last six months and that I just couldn’t do this.

As the clock rolled slowly towards exam time, I genuinely thought "what on earth am I doing here?" When the exam invigilator told us we could start, I had two choices – puke or do my best. I chose to relax and try my best: if I didn’t pass, no one would die and the sky wouldn’t fall.

Because of this recent experience, I know the weeks before exams can be terribly stressful for kids. Trying to revise and make information stay inside their brain, I know that there will be times when they’ll want to give up, thinking that this is too hard and they can’t do it. And that is when they will need their parents to be their cheerleaders, to be their safe haven, their shelter in the storm.

They need us to tell them they can do this and that we will be with them every step of the way. They need to hear us say "never give up".

My dad was a school teacher. He taught history in Strabane. How I wish he was here now to help my oldest son navigate this important part of his life. He always knew exactly what to say.

From when I was young, whatever challenges that arose – from exam stress, to work stress, to family stress, to whatever – he would tell me "keep going". Those were his words of encouragement for me and they meant so much, because he was someone cheering me on, believing 100 per cent that I could do it.

His image is painted on the side of a wall in the Bogside alongside others who played major roles in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. On days when I feel like life is tough or things aren’t going so well, I drive past him there and I say "I’ll keep going, Daddy".

People no doubt think I’m mad, but it bolsters me, thinking he’s now looking down, still willing me to do my best and to never give up.

I’ll try and help my boy navigate this stressful chapter in his life. I’ll follow the usual advice about making sure he is sleeping well, eating well, taking plenty of breaks, making sure he has somewhere comfortable to study, encouraging exercise and working out ways to stay calm about the whole thing.

And I’ll be there so he can share any worries he has about his work or exams and keep things in perspective, reminding him it’s completely OK to feel anxious about it all, remaining positive and reassuring and reminding him that everything, no matter what, will be OK.

No doubt I’ll borrow my father’s words and tell him, as my dad told me, to "keep going".

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