How to Support Your Exam-Stressed Teen!

by | Aug 22, 2018 | Kid's Health topics

How to Support Your Exam-Stressed Teen!

by | Aug 22, 2018 | Kid's Health topics

10 Stress Busters to Help You and Your Teen Conquer the Exam Stress Bug!

Author: Dr. Jenni Silva (Clinical Psychologist, Brilliant Minds Psychology)

Hi there everyone!  I wrote a blog a couple of days ago to help teens and uni students manage stress, if you haven’t seen it yet check it out

Well this blog is for parents, carers, teachers,  – & really anyone involved in helping raise teens! I’m writing this blog at night, sitting next to my daughter who at the time was working on her uni assignment.  I asked her ‘How can I help you when you have exams and assessments due?”    She answered “helping me have a quiet place to study, with no distractions“‘, she continued with, and… “if you see me studying, don’t come in and tell me to clean my room –  it’s my last priority!”   …. me ? never! haha

I thought this was a great start to writing this blog!  I have certainly been that parent – yes THAT parent that has gone to check on my teen when she was in high school studying to find myself feeling overwhelmed by the sight of her room (What is it with teens and their messy rooms?) …  And she’s right, when you see your teen is in the middle of studying, it is poor timing to tell them to clean their room and start a lecture right then and there!   So it makes sense that they get annoyed when we start doing things like this…  Just leave that chat to later! When it comes to stressful times such as exams, us, as parents need to remember that chores such as cleaning their room are the last priority for many!

Anyway… this conversation I just had with my daughter above really highlights the importance of communication. Remembering to just check in and ask your teen ‘How can I help?” or ask how they are going is a great way to let them know that you are there to support them during their stressful times.  (*This does not mean that we become a slave to our teens…. but certainly giving them some slack and time off chores can help).
Well let’s start off by looking at a little information about those teen years that are from approximately 12-24 years (yes! that’s right)… it’s a long haul!

The Teen Years

The teen years are complicated and amazing years at the same time.  It is known across time to be challenging for everyone involved, the teens and their parents!  The teen years are accompanied by big changes in brain development. Brain changes in the teen years set up four qualities: (1) novelty seeking; (2) social engagement (why they always want to talk to their peers via social media and or hang out), (3) increased emotional intensity (that is why they have stronger emotional reactions often) and (4) creative explorations (Check out Dr.Dan Siegel’s Brain Storm Book).  Therefore, teens through changes in brain development which is essential,  often experience their feelings in intense ways. For some reason, us adults seem to have formed a type of amnesia which entails completely forgetting about what it was like for us to be teens!
When it comes to stress, we live in a world surrounded by stressors and it is important to learn how to cope in healthy ways! High levels of stress are simply not good for anyone, it affects the brains ability to concentrate, store information and therefore affects our ability to remember information that we have learnt. This means that when our adolescents are under a lot of stress and pressure it is hard for them to remember information they have previously studied.  Remember what I said before, they really feel their feelings intensely!   In particular final school examinations are a very stressful and one of the most significant school stressors for teens.  With research indicating that more than 40% of students report depressive, anxiety and stress symptoms.
Well let’s get on with looking at some ways you can help your teen thrive and learn to cope through high stress exam times.

How Can I Help my Teen?

The wonderful news is that there are so many ways we can support our teens, well one way is to continue to be the BEST YOU that you can be!! (Some of the tips below may help!).  Here are my Top 10 – Enjoy.

Stress Buster No. 1 The Power of ‘YET’

Dr Carol Dweck talks about the ‘The Power of YET’.   Her research focused on helping develop a GROWTH Mindset.  Many of us and also our teens can often have a FIXED Mindset (i.e., that is they tend to think if they are not good at something straight away than they are ‘bad at it’ ) – this is a fixed mindset and affects the way we face challenges!

The Power of ‘YET’, is about focusing on a growth mindset.  That is, that talents and abilities CAN be developed.   A Growth Mindset does not focus on intelligence, it focuses on the process. For example a Growth Mindset would say, just add – ‘NOT YET!’  For example, “I don’t understand this assignment – at least NOT YET!”  This encourages a growth mindset that your child or teen can and will eventually learn this and that there ability is not FIXED…. give it a go. This approach encourages persistence!

For more on Dr. Dweck’s Growth Mindset check out her TED Talk ‘The Power of Yet’

Stress Buster No.2. Helpful Thoughts or Helpful Self-Talk

We all have thoughts. This is your inner speech or automatic thoughts. Some of our thoughts can be very helpful and encouraging,  while others can be very discouraging, unhelpful, negative and critical.  Our thoughts have a massive impact on how we feel and behave about our world, others and ourselves.

If you find that you or your teen are having unhelpful thoughts or negative inner speech such as “Give Up”, “You will never understand this”, “”You’re not smart enough” then let’s face it, these type of unhelpful thoughts are just not HELPFUL!  Therefore, try changing your unhelpful thoughts into more helpful thoughts.

One activity you can do with your teen, is write down a few helpful thoughts on a small card or post-it-notes and stick on computer or around the study area!  Encourage them to practise their helpful thoughts and see what difference it can make!  Remember teens get overwhelmed, so this is a good activity to do try out before the stress is high!

Help your teen take the pressure off & remind them that no one particular exam is a measure of their intelligence. Here are some examples of helpful thoughts

“I’ll try my best”

“If I get stuck I can ask for help”

“I’ll just get started and take a break later”

“I can stay calm” 

 Stress Buster No.3. Laughter is the Best Medicine

Laugh Laugh Laugh with your teen. Lighten up the mood. Laugher has positive effects on your mind including reduction of cortisol (i.e., the stress hormone), pain reduction, positive immune system changes to name a few.   Not only does humour lighten our mood, it helps us cope better with stress. Take some time out and watch some funny You Tube videos or take your teen to see a funny movie!  For more information on laughter check out this link


Stress Buster No.4. Communication

  • Communication is key to all relationships!  Don’t wait for high stress times to work out your communication with your teen.
  • Be a good listener, don’t nag or lecture!
  • Use communication to plan so you know when your teens’ assignments are due and when exams days are set.  Communicating and planning ahead of time is the best way.
  • For more information on how to communicate with your teen check out this link


Stress Buster No. 5. Regulate Our Own Parent Emotions

  • How do you respond to your teen’s stress? Do you stay calm or do you become stressed as well?  Learning to regulate our own emotions as parents is important when it comes to helping our teens learn to emotionally regulate their big feelings! The teen brain is under construction and we do know that teens are much more emotional when compared to children and adults.
  • If you are a parent that tends to get stressed when your teen is stressed, work on self care for YOU!  (hot baths with oils, go for a walk, listen to some relaxation music, cook your favourite food, etc).
  • The Unhelpful Way in Dealing with Our Teens Emotions: There are many unhelpful ways that we can react towards our teens when they are upset.  Let’s face it, we have probably ALL been guilty at some time or another of showing these reactions to our teens and children!  Here are 3 unhelpful ways of responding to stressed teens :
    1. The Reactive Approach – that is yelling, getting frustrated or annoyed and losing our cool.
    2. The Dismissive Approach – (ie., “no need to be stressed”, ‘”stop it!”, “you’re being silly”)
    3. The Fix It Approach – this approach aims to fix your child’s problem (i.e., just do this, you need to study harder, why didn’t you start studying last weekend?). Don’t caught up in the Fix It trap just yet!

Stress Buster No. 6: Validation

  • Validation shows the other person
    • 1. that they are important,
    • 2. Helps them feel understood, that is  a sense of ‘feeling felt’, therefore it lowers stress or the fight flight freeze response.
  • To validate, this is simply showing that you ‘get it’ or understand what the other person is going through! It does not mean that you have to agree or like your teens opinions or feelings.
  • It is important to acknowledge your teen’s feelings and to make sure they feel heard and  that you get it (i.e,. Validate!). Providing space for them to process and have their feelings.  You need to validate your teen, exams and assessments are stressful and it can be very overwhelming!
  • Validation is essential in building healthy relationships.
  • How to Validate? Listen, and I mean really listen to your teen! and try sentences like:
    • e.g., “it make sense that you are feeling this way, you’ve got a lot on.”,
    • “it sounds like……”
    • “it’s frustrating when you can’t work out something straight away, that frustrates me too”.
  • Validation gives your teen permission to feel and have their feelings! (acceptance of the feeling helps!)
  • Tip: When you validate do not use BUT!!! BUT arghh!!! this undoes all of your lovely validation that you just did and is THE DISMISSIVE APPROACH!

This is a great video by Brene Brown on Empathy that might help you with what validation looks like. Check out this great video

Laugh Time: Here is a funny video on what Validation is not. It’s Not About the Nail

Stress Buster No. 7. Distraction Free Study Spot

  • Having a quiet place to study is essential! Does your teen have a place to study? If not help your teen set up a study spot in the house.   This spot should be free from distractions to help your teen focus and get their study done.
  • Study Schedule – Check out Dr. Meg’s Study Planner (due to be published on the blog next week!)

Stress Buster No. 8. Sleep

  • Make sure your teen is getting enough sleep!   Set boundaries around technology use.  Teens still need boundaries. Have their phone outside of bedroom when it’s time to sleep. Remember your teen needs between 8-10 hours of sleep

 Stress Buster No. 9. Healthy Eating Tips for Teens 

When it comes to stress we need a holistic approach that means taking care of ourselves and eating well.  We do know that junk food every day is poor fuel and your body can not run well on poor quality fuel!  Eating too much junk food slows you down! Check out the Junk Food Calculator – click here 

Small changes in your teens eating can make a big difference. For more information check this link out

A few basics are listed below…

  • Cut back soft drinks and energy drinks. Water is the BEST option for drinks!
  • Eat fruit! Have some fresh fruit on the table for snacks.
  • Some junk food is okay but limit this
  • So many teens skip breakfast,  make sure your teen is waking up earlier enough and eating breakfast every day.

Stress Buster No. 10. Change your Posture for 2 minutes Power Posing

I shared this one early in the week in the Teen Post, but it is soo good that I am sharing it again here just in case you missed the one earlier this week.  We do know that our body language also affects how we feel! Another way to help your teen feel better and also yourself is to practice Power Posing! I love doing this in the clinic with the kids, e.g., walk around like you own the room, hands on hips or hands in the air like you just won a race.  While we do this, we practice our helpful thoughts “I can do this” “It’s okay if I don’t get it YET, I can ask for help” etc…  This works, it is amazing and helps build self confidence.  Check out Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk below – it’s AWESOME!

Well that’s it from me, I hope this has been helpful.

Best wishes

Dr. Jenni Silva


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Preventing Depression in Final Year Secondary Students: School-Based Randomized Controlled Trial. Yael Perry, et al., 2017.

Smith L, Sinclair K. Transforming the HSC: affective implications. Change Transform Educ. 2000;3(2):67–79

Books: Brain Storm (Dan Siegel)

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About Dr Megs

About Dr Megs

Megan is a Brisbane and Ipswich-based paediatrician in public and private practice, and mum to two small children. You can usually find her working hard in private practice at Paeds in a Pod North Lakes and Greenslopes, and in public practice at Ipswich Hospital.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog is written for the purpose of providing GENERAL advice about common children's health topics (and of course recipes). It is NOT a substitute for a proper medical assessment and examination by a qualified physician. If your child is unwell, seek medical and attention and advice in person.