Parents: how to support students during exams

18 Nov 2021

At this time of the year, it's not unusual for some students to lose motivation or feel overwhelmed by the pressure of exams. How can parents provide support during these challenging weeks? We asked a careers adviser and a mental health expert for some practical tips.

Adult and young person smiling and talking outside

Ease the pressure

Josh Wiseman, Head of Data and Insights at youth mental health organisation batyr, says it’s important for students to give themselves permission to take time out from study. ‘This can remind them that there are things outside of the exams and the pressures of results that are important.’

Parents can be proactive about this, says high school careers adviser Kate Poppett. ‘Surprise your child by taking them somewhere new, cooking their favourite dinner or even taking them to the movies one night,’ she says. ‘It’s about encouraging them to get out of their own head, taking some pressure off and helping them keep perspective.’

Here are some simple suggestions to help your student recharge and stay focused.

  • Provide a calm study space. Help them create a space that they enjoy working in. ‘Buy them a plant, a candle, maybe a small smart speaker for some background noise,’ says Poppett. ‘Cups of tea and snacks will always help! Stock up the fridge with your child's favourites.’
  • Create structure. ‘Having a plan can often make us feel more in control,’ says Wiseman. ‘Dedicating times for study and times for other activities can encourage them to take that much needed time out.’ It helps if parents have an idea of their child’s study timetable, adds Poppett. ‘Help them stick to it and try not to interrupt them when they are focusing on study – and keep siblings away if you can!’
  • Stay connected. ‘Remind them to prioritise time with friends sometimes, just to hang out, kick the footy and have fun,’ says Wiseman. ‘Taking time to engage with things we like to do on our own is important too, such as going for a walk or a swim, or playing an instrument.’

Be a sounding board

If a student seems overwhelmed or stressed during the exam period, communication can be one of the biggest challenges. Wiseman suggests starting the conversation with open-ended questions.

‘Say the things that you’ve noticed, like “I’ve noticed you haven’t been enjoying footy training as much” or “I’ve noticed that you haven’t left your room in a couple of days – what’s going on, is everything alright?” Sometimes identifying what you’ve noticed can give your child permission to open up about it,’ he says.

At batyr, Wiseman has worked with lived-experience speakers and clinical psychologists to deliver preventative programs to thousands of young people across Australia. Many young people have shared that they want to open up to a friend or a trusted adult that isn't a parent.

‘That can be really tough for a parent,’ says Wiseman. ‘However, checking in to see if they have someone they feel comfortable talking to can help alleviate that concern.’

Stay positive and calm

Poppett notes that it's not unusual for students to be extra sensitive and reactive during exam time. ‘Family is a safe space and it may be the only place where students feel like they can let out their frustrations. It may be directed towards parents or siblings,’ she says. ‘Parents need to be aware that it's not personal: try to stay calm and supportive even during intense periods.’

Parents often underestimate the power they have to lift their child’s confidence, she adds. ‘In my experience, students doing their exams can feel really worried about disappointing their parents, or themselves. Many of them feel that life comes down to this moment.

‘Telling your child you are proud of them – that you’re so impressed with what they’ve already achieved, that their marks are not indicative of their potential or future success – can make such a big difference.’

Reach out for help

If stress becomes overwhelming or goes on for too long, students should seek help from a counsellor, GP or mental health service. Parents can help by modelling behaviour and letting their child know that ‘it’s okay to not be okay’, says Wiseman.

'Make sure that your children know about resources and services available. Show that it’s okay to take charge of your mental health and reach out to a professional.'