“Go away, I’m studying!” my son shouts at me through his bedroom door.

I skip away, delighted. This, after all, is the son who just a few years ago hardly knew which Junior Cert exam he was sitting each day.

It’s exam season and parents around the country are walking on eggshells. But what can we do to support our children and ease the pressure?

Often felt by the whole household, exams are a stressful time, Leaving Cert particularly so.

“It’s perfectly normal,” agrees Aileen Hickie, CEO of Parentline. “Tests and exams can be challenging both for the child and for the parent to try and navigate their way through.”

From April, Parentline sees an upsurge of calls from parents concerned that their child is stressed about upcoming exams, especially State exams. This might manifest itself in the child being irritable, moody, sleeping badly (either oversleeping or under-sleeping), not eating enough or overeating.

Other parents experience difficulty in trying to motivate their child to study, with the parent often carrying the stress for them.

“The worst thing a parent can do is add to the pressure, that’s intentionally adding to it or unintentionally,” says Aileen.

Biting your tongue

This might mean turning a blind eye and biting your tongue for a time. Give your child some leeway, pay no heed to the crankiness, the untidy bedroom, the chores left undone.

“This is not a time to pick out the things that have been annoying you, it’s a time to let things go if you can,” recommends Dr Anne Kehoe, President of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI).

Take time to think about what sitting big exams means to you the parent, suggests Anne.

“What we often do as parents is we try and give our kids what we didn’t have. So, if you didn’t have someone pushing you, you might try and push your kids,” she explains.

Instead, give your child the space to talk about what worries them specifically, without fixing it. “As parents we’re always trying to fix things and this is not something that we can fix,” Anne says.

Show that you hear your child and understand by saying things like “that sounds hard” rather than “if you just…”

It’s also important to “allow space for your young person to do it their way,” says Anne.

“There are many ways to succeed in life, even if they’re not really engaged or struggling with big exams. You can’t do it for them.”

Support team

That doesn’t mean that you can’t act as their support team. Encourage routine, a revision schedule with breaks and a cut-off time, a balanced diet, exercise or getting out in the fresh air, even if it’s just for half an hour. Ensure they have relaxation time meeting friends or watching television and rewards or something to look forward to when the exams are over.

Make sure wherever they’re studying is comfortable for them. The kitchen table with the clatter of family life isn’t suitable, so make a space somewhere they’re comfortable and relatively undisturbed. Encourage clean lines between revising and relaxation, so that when they are doing their revision, they’re doing their revision and when they’re taking a break, they’re taking a break.

Under stress, you forget things easily, so help them check they have everything ready for the exam: pens, pencils, rulers, calculator, lunch ... trying to find a geometry set at 8.30am when their maths exam starts at 9am is no fun, trust me.

“They don’t have to survive on their own, this is too unusual and stressful to do on their own,” advises Anne.

Kindness and patience

Anne recommends parents to show extra kindness, patience and tolerance, reminding their child that exams are temporary. Vent any frustration at your child’s moods or behaviours elsewhere by talking to a friend or neighbour.

“Stories around people who didn’t succeed in the Leaving Cert are also really useful because they got on with their lives,” says Anne. “It doesn’t determine everything in the way that people believed it did maybe 30 or 40 years ago. The world is different now.”

However, Leaving Cert is still incredibly important for our young people – they’ll be well aware of this from teachers, peers, online and the media. Look out for signs of overwhelm.

“The warning signs would be things like really isolating themselves, cutting themselves off from family and friends, not eating, not sleeping, becoming what we would call very dysregulated,” explains Anne.

If you are concerned that your child may be having thoughts about suicide or self-harm, let them have the space to come forward. You can’t drill or pressure young people to share that kind of information, advises Anne.

“Talk to your young person. People can hide things very easily if they want to, but it’s about opening up communication, saying, ‘Look, I know that you might not want to talk about this but you always can, no matter what,’” she says.

If you have concerns, contact your GP. There is also useful information available on sites such as Jigsaw (https://www.jigsaw.ie) and SpunOut (https://spunout.ie).

“It’s a very significant time in people’s lives and people really need to know that there is enough support out there,” says Anne.

Last but not least, parents need to remember to be kind to themselves too during exam season.

“There’s no such thing as the perfect child and neither is there such a thing as the perfect parent,” concludes Aileen.

“So, it’s ok to be a good enough parent and it’s ok for them to be a good enough student.”

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