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How to support your child’s mental well-being during exams

Pupils preparing for exams often feel under pressure. Picture: Unsplash/ Santi Vedrí

Pupils preparing for exams often feel under pressure. Picture: Unsplash/ Santi Vedrí

Published Nov 2, 2021


Exam season is, for many students, the most stressful time of the academic year.

Pupils preparing for exams often feel under pressure. This pressure to do well can heighten exam stress and the pressure may result in feelings of anxiety or nervousness and interfere with the individual’s daily life. While a certain amount of stress may be beneficial, too much exam stress can cause individuals to perform poorly.

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Parents can sometimes expect a lot from their children and therefore pressurise them to perform well in exams. However, keeping high expectations and pressuring children during exams can cause them even more exam stress.

Counselling Psychologist and Head of Campus at the South African College of Applied Psychology, Jogini Packery says, “Parents have a pivotal role to play, but that may not be what you think it is. What is crucial to keep in mind is that your role is to empower and enable their best possible performance.

“Parents can provide essential support in helping their child to constantly re-evaluate what is working for them and what is not. Mental agility and flexibility are at the core of resilience. If something that your child is doing is not serving their purpose, then you can encourage them to set healthy boundaries and reward,” says Packery.

With many matriculants busy writing exams and others preparing for their exams, experts are encouraging parents and family members to be supportive and promote mental well-being during this stressful time.

Counselling psychologist, Lauren Martin, says: “There is no doubt that healthy, emotional well-being is important for positive functioning in life, including academic success. However, healthy, emotional well-being does not mean we live a life free of experiencing discomforts or unpleasant emotions.

“Rather, we learn that academic success can be achieved while experiencing challenging states and circumstances. So, yes the world has flipped upside down. But you can still take control of your future, and matrics can start right now to prepare themselves emotionally, physically and mentally to get through their exams.”

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Your child needs your support during exams, whether it’s just lending a patient ear or making sure they keep away from online distractions.

Esmarie Cilliers, a Registered Counsellor in private practice with a special interest in Developmental Psychology and Personal Growth points out: “Studying for success is not a question of luck or talent alone. Researchers agree that students who have a strategy or a plan for how they are going to study, achieve the best outcomes. Students who follow a plan and scientific study methods learn more easily, retain information for longer periods of time and save themselves hours of study time which enables them to have more balance in their lives.”

Sufficient sleep, supportive nutrition and being physically active every day too often fall by the wayside when study pressures mount.

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“How we eat directly affects our energy levels and concentration,” Nathalie Mat, a clinical dietitian with a special interest in child and adolescent nutrition. “Eating balanced meals and snacks with a variety of foods results in good blood sugar control. When our blood sugar control is smooth as silk, meaning no sugar highs followed by lows, we’re able to keep laser-like focus for longer.

“Quick fixes like coffee and energy drinks may promise a mental boost but are not ideal sources of nutrition and do not fuel our brains. High caffeine intake can affect sleep which further decreases concentration and learning. What we eat and drink impacts our ability to think clearly and concentrate for long periods of time. Fuelling your brain well will help you excel.”

With a broader perspective, parents can also help promote and support practical, daily ways of taking physical, mental and emotional care of oneself.

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Packery shares tips on how parents can help their children during this time:

Effective communication wins the day

At the root of surviving the matric experience, and hopefully giving it wings, is open communication. It works best if parents can ask how their child wants to be supported, instead of assuming and deciding for them. Aim to do more listening than talking and try asking coaching questions instead of dispensing advice.

Different strokes

Parents of this digital-native generation can expect that the way their child approaches their studies may be quite different to how they tackled their own exam preparation. Sometimes, parents can be too quick to jump in with advice drawn from their own experiences when this may not be relevant. Parents need to be aware of their impact and know when to pull back so that they don’t contribute to their child’s stress.

Setting the scene

Jogini says, “There’s actually a lot that parents can do to promote conducive conditions for their child to study well and perform optimally in the exams. They can champion their child’s self-care by facilitating home life so that they can eat healthily, keep physically active and get sufficient sleep. They can make it clear that they are there for support, open to talking through anxieties and roadblocks – or helping their child access professional support if that’s necessary.”

Promoting agility and resilience

Having a positive attitude towards matric studies and exams is not about pretending it’s all going to be easy. There are inevitably going to be some rough times, no matter how thoughtful parents are in maintaining a conducive environment and good communication.

Jogini explains that we all have innate coping strategies that help us feel better in tough moments, but not all coping strategies return us quickly to a balanced state. Some coping strategies can lead us to being distracted or avoidant at a time when your child needs to get back on track as quickly as possible.