Managing exam stress


Kids jumping for joy outdoors

At a glance:

  • Stress is a normal part of life and can aid performance.
  • Try and support your child with good nutrition.
  • Encourage enough sleep.
  • Physical and social activity are important pressure valves for hard-working kids.
  • Exams are the first of many  deadlines your child will need to manage. Don't rob them of developing  that crucial skill by jumping in and solving everything.

As high school students around Australia prepare for end of year exams, child psychologist Kimberley O'Brien, from Sydney's Quirky Kid Clinic, has some good advice to help families manage pre-exam stress.

"Stress isn't necessarily a bad thing – adrenalin can be useful in helping kids stay on track, study longer and finish tasks more quickly," Kimberley says. "The problems arise when it takes over and your teenager starts to feel overwhelmed and even isolated."

In a perfect world, your teenager will have organised their study and revision into manageable chunks throughout the year, balancing work with social activities, exercise and plenty of sleep.

But in the real world, most kids have some level of pre-exam anxiety and some wake up the morning of an exam convinced that they "know nothing" at all.

According to Kimberley, the best thing parents can do as exams approach is provide support with the basics, restrain the desire to jump in and fix everything, and encourage their child to see the "big picture".

Healthy body, healthy mind

"As obvious as it might seem, reminding your child to get enough sleep and exercise, and to eat properly, is vital to effective study and exam performance," Kimberley says, adding that something as simple as monitoring your child's caffeine intake and increasing their water consumption can make an impact.

Coffee, tea, chocolate, cola drinks and many energy drinks can all contain significant amounts of caffeine, which in high doses may cause anxiety, dizziness, headaches, and make it harder to concentrate.

It's recommended that teens don't exceed 400mg of caffeine a day(some coffee and energy drinks have as much as 350mg, so check the labels).

Keeping perspective

Kimberley recommends that parents help their kids create a balanced schedule during the lead-up to exams.

"We encourage parents to sit with their kids and make a plan on paper. Break study up into bite-sized pieces, according to what exams or projects are due first," she says.

"You need to be flexible with family commitments too. You may need to excuse your child from  attending family functions for, say, 12 weeks leading up to the exams. You may need to put family meal-times forward or back to fit in with the study schedule. That can help your child stay connected to the family, and make sure they're getting the right nutrition and rest breaks."

And don't forget to let your child schedule social time with their friends. Time spent on social networks isn't necessarily procrastination or an unnecessary distraction.

"Many kids need to say: ‘Okay, from 9:30 to 10:00, I'm going on Facebook to vent about how stressed out I am', so they can connect with their friends, and to help them realise that what they're feeling is very common," Kimberley says, "but then at 10:00, they need to get back on track with their schedule."

Exams are a learning curve

As difficult as it may be, parents need to take a step back and let their teens be responsible and learn from their mistakes.

Whether your child plans to study at TAFE or university, or head into the workforce, they'll need to learn time-management skills to meet important deadlines.  

Kimberley says the perfect balance is for kids to feel supported and loved, while still being in charge of their study and performance.

"It can be hard, but parents need to restrain themselves from becoming too involved, and from placing unrealistic expectations on their kids," she says.

Exams are the first of many important deadlines your child will need to manage. Don't rob them of developing  that crucial skill by jumping in and solving everything.

Beyond stress

For some students, the pressures of being a teenager and preparing for major exams can be overwhelming.

You may want to talk to their year adviser, teacher, school counsellor or a child psychologist if you're worried about them:

  • being unusually cranky and irritable
  • having sleeping difficulties
  • complaining of chest pains and/or nausea
  • displaying low self-esteem
  • losing touch with friends
  • or having ongoing difficulty getting motivated.

For more suggestions for managing exam stress,including information on useful relaxation techniques, visit the Quirky Kid Clinic website.







Kimberley O'Brien is one of Australia's most recognized Child Psychologists with a knack for solving issues from the child's perspective.

With 15  years' experience working around Australia and internationally, Kimberley is now Principal Psychologist at the Quirky Kid Clinic in Woollahra (Sydney) offering consultation, assessments and practical strategies for children, adolescents and families.imberley recently authored and published four (4) Educational Resources ("Just Like When", "Tell Me A Story", "The Likes of You(th)" and "Face It") currently being  distributed by the Australian Council of Education and Research (ACER). She is also currently collaborating on a book  from Springer Press (UK) relating to  ‘Positive Parent-Child Relationships'.




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