This article was originally posted on 15th May 2022; it was last reviewed and updated on 26th May 2023.
Exams, revision and stress – how to help young people
It’s that time of year – exam season, when many teenagers are sitting exams (including GCSEs. AS-Levels and A-Levels).
The pandemic interrupted school and so some young people may not have had as much practice at exams as they would have done in normal times, or feel less confident because of the disruption and/or illness. Exams can affect the whole family – it’s a stressful time all round! Parents want to help their young people so we’ve found some links to useful information and also asked Dr Kate Mason of Worcestershire’s Roots Psychology Group to share some advice.
First, there are resources to help teenagers with revision, such as The Times’ Revise and Shine exam survival guide and Birmingham City University’s Revision guide. The Anna Freud National Centre for children and families also has advice for young people about Revision.
For anyone whose child is autistic, the National Autistic Society has some advice for preparing autistic young people for exams. The ETeach Group also has 5 GCSE revision tips for autistic students.
When it comes to the actual exams, many young people feel anxious and some get extremely stressed and anxious about them, so what can parents do to support and help their children during exam season? Luckily there’s quite a lot of information about how to deal with this.
Young Minds’ article, “Exam Time” has some ideas for you and the NHS site has a page for parents to help your child beat exam stress. Family Lives’ tips on exam stress page provides suggestions of how parents can support their children (and includes tips about revision too).
The Charlie Waller Trust has information for parents and carers to support children through exams (and for school staff to support students), as well as information for young people about looking after their mental health during exams. Papyrus’ advice about exam season includes suggestions for apps to help teenagers and a few ways that parents and teachers can support them.
For young people, Young Minds’ article How to look after your mental health during revision and exams may be useful. Childline also has information and advice about exam stress and pressure.
Jane Evans’ series of 5 short films about simple tips to reduce anxiety may be helpful too. The Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families has a short film by Dr Sheila Redfern with advice about managing stress at important moments (whether that’s sitting exams or receiving the results!).
Young Minds also have four tips if a young person can’t sleep because of academic stress.
Dr Kate Mason has 5 tips for young people, listed below:
Tip 1 – Keep it in perspective
Exam success does not define you as a person. Everyone copes differently in different situations and there is so much more to your personality than how well you can respond to an exam. Think about how far you have come already. You have already done incredibly well to get to where you are. Once you have done an exam, try to forget about it. There’s nothing you can do about it and worrying won’t change your mark.
Tip 2 – Get that organised feeling
Work out the basics: which exams you have, how the marks are allocated, and how much you have to learn for each one. Having in mind where you’ll get the marks can help you prioritise. Break your revision down into small chunks and form a plan – then you won’t have dilemmas at the start of the day about what to work on. Schedule in plenty of free time to unwind and protect this time. If you give yourself plenty of rest you can do the same amount of work in half the time or less. Don’t panic if you go slightly off schedule – tomorrow is another day.
Tip 3 – Avoid bad habits
Don’t set yourself ridiculous goals and don’t cut out all the enjoyment from your life – it’s impossible to focus without giving your brain a rest by doing other activities. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and energy drinks as they impede your energy and concentration in the long term. It’ll also make it more difficult to get that much-needed sleep.
Tip 4 – Get into some good habits
Take frequent breaks. Psychologists say we can only concentrate properly for 30-45 minutes. When you do take a break make sure you don’t stay at your desk. Eat well. Avoid highs and lows of energy by eating slow release foods like bread, rice, pasta, fruit/veg. Drink lots of water – people often underestimate how much hydration helps!
Think about when and where you work best. There’s no one best place or time to work – it’s about what works for you. Keep active, even a short walk will do. Exercising is one of the quickest and most effective ways to de-stress. Try to get about 8 hours’ sleep a night. Find activities that help you relax; schedule this down-time into your timetable.
Tip 5 – Get support from friends and family
Don’t be put off by friends saying that they are doing huge amounts of revision. One of the key reasons people feel exam stress is due to comparing themselves to other people. If you can, discuss with your parents what they are expecting you to achieve. It’s helpful to let them know what you think you have the capacity to achieve, and to insist that the best way to get there is to have support from your parents, not pressure. If you’re feeling really worried or anxious, chat to a good friend, family member, or tutor. It helps to get it out of your system, and they may well be able to help think about practical strategies to deal with exam stress.
Dr Mason also has this advice for parents about teenagers and exams, using a PACE (Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy) approach:
‘Listen to their concerns and be a sounding board for them to offload if they need to.
Try not to lecture or give too much “advice” – as much as it’s coming from a good place, if they are stressed the part of their brain responsible for taking on information, reasoning, learning, reflecting and thinking rationally temporarily goes “offline” as they move into their emotional “fight/flight” brain, so any attempts to reason and talk them out of their emotional state may well be met with frustration and anger. Try to maintain an attitude of curiosity with them about how they’re feeling and show them that you’re really trying to understand their experience
Often the most supportive thing you can do is listen and offer acceptance and empathy for their situation as opposed to trying to “fix it” (a natural reaction to seeing our children in distress)- there’s no getting out of exams, and it’s an extremely anxiety provoking and stressful time, so sitting with this and letting them know you get it and appreciate how hard this period is.
Practically, it’s important to encourage healthy routines –
- Quietly observe their sleeping, exercise, social and eating habits and support where necessary but don’t make it into another issue for them to worry about, (remember avoid the lectures such as “you need to make sure you take breaks”) and maybe make their favourite meal or take them a nice treat and encourage 10 minutes break every now and again instead.
- Give them something to look forward to – even small things like a movie night or a morning out having breakfast
- Help them organise an end of exam celebration either with family or with friends to mark the end of their hard work.
- Where appropriate, maintain a level of playfulness to provide some light relief from the stresses, laughter can be a great stress reliever!
For more information about the PACE approach, download our PACE Brochure here. ‘
What else can we say? Well first – Good Luck to everyone, both the students who are sitting exams and the parents and families who are supporting them. Second, there is a well known phrase: “This too shall pass” – and it will, exams do not last forever!
Many, many grateful thanks to Dr Kate Mason of Roots Psychology Group for both allowing us to use her tips for students and especially for writing the above advice for parents for us. If you are interested in the PACE approach you will find the Roots Psychology brochure useful. You can also keep up to date with Dr Mason’s Everyday Parenting group dates (supporting children with everyday emotional needs) by following @rootspsychology on Facebook and Instagram.
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